My students will begin grappling with The Education of Augie Merasty: A Residential School Memoir tomorrow evening, and one of our many topics of conversation will be this striking book cover, which features a photograph of a single green mitten, taken by Alan Clarke.
In the second chapter of the book, Augie describes being sent out of school with another boy and made to walk for about 20 miles in a -60F windchill — their “punishment” for having each lost a single mitten on the previous day. It’s a distressing story of two “very nervous and scared” ten year old boys, alone but for each other in the middle of a vast frozen lake, each clutching a stick to protect against the wolves. When the boys eventually return to the school without their lost mittens, they are beaten.
Today it’s not uncommon to see lone mittens or other articles of clothing laying lost on the ground in parking lots or beside sidewalks or roadways. There’s even a Facebook group dedicated to images of shoes found lost on the side of the road. Some people are deeply fascinated with the lost-clothing phenomenon and can’t help but wonder or imagine how the items came to be lost.
Personally, when I see an abandoned shoe or glove on the side of a road, I think, with some amount of trepidation, what happened? There’s a story here — but if I’m being honest, I don’t especially want to know what that story is. I am not curious, I do not wish to know more, and I quickly avert my eyes. Because I always fear that it might be a sad or an upsetting story — like an abduction, an assault, or an accident. I don’t want to know what potentially horrible thing that lost piece of clothing might mean to somebody, somewhere.
So I have been thinking today about this photograph and about its efficacy as a representation of Settler Canada’s desire to avert its eyes from the history and legacy of the residential schools. Maybe we see the mitten and we look away because, if we’re being honest, we’d rather not know its story. And maybe our lives would be easier or happier if we didn’t have to think too hard about the mitten or about what it means to somebody, somewhere — if we didn’t have to connect it to a story of little boys, cold, alone, afraid.
Merasty’s memoir is powerful and it deserved powerful cover art, so kudos to the design team at the University of Regina Press.