Walking Down the Secret Path with Gord Downie and Jeff Lemire

Secret Path
Written by Gord Downie
Drawn by Jeff Lemire
Published by Simon and Schuster

There’s an ugliness at the center of Gord Downie and Jeff Lemire’s Secret Path, the story of a child taken away from his native home in the name of Christianity. With Downie’s lyrics and Lemire’s drawings, the book shows a boy’s desire to get home in a world that will not let him return to his parents. The book shows the resilience of the boy’s character and drive but it also shows the cruelty of the life that goes with all of that. By taking a broad approach to a very specific, historical incident, Downie and Lemire tell a universal story that provides as many lessons that we need to have today as it does lessons about the past.

Lemire takes the story that Downie tells through song (from an album of the same name) and gives it a face. The Indigenous boy, in real life named Chanie Wenjack but never actually named in the book, was taken from his family and sent to a Presbyterian school that was funded by the Canadian government. In Lemire’s silent images which speak volumes, we see the boy in this school, surrounded by other kids but more threateningly surrounded by priests and nuns and it looks like a prison. The boy is a prisoner of a piousness that has little to no regard for the boy himself or for his heritage. And for a boy who was only 9 years old, prison is what it must have felt like as these people try to teach him state-sponsored Christianity.

When the boy escapes the school with a couple of other kids, he eventually finds himself all alone, walking along a cold and isolated railroad, trying to make his way back to his home and his parents. Shaping the visual story around Downie’s lyrics, Lemire’s linework isn’t merely narrative; it’s emotional. As we’ve seen with Lemire at his best, going back to the Essex County trilogy, his art has an evocative nature to it that reflects its characters emotional states. Whether it’s the large, sunken eyes or the shaky lines, Lemire’s depiction of the boy’s journey represents his emotional state as much as it does his physical condition.

Secret Path is a very cold book. With his Payne’s gray watercolor wash over his drawings, Lemire strives to make the boy’s world a harsh place. The bluish-gray hues that color the boy’s existence, except for the few colorfully warm memories of his family, add to the cruelty of the world in the boy’s experience. Walking down that railroad track with the boy, you can feel the dropping temperatures and the boy’s own struggle for warmth. As Downie’s lyrics remind us, the boy only had a windbreaker but he’s out there in the Canadian wilderness as the temperatures continue to drop and Lemire gets you to feel everything that the boy is going through.

Downie’s plaintive lyrics never treat the boy’s story as a simple narrative but he tries to explore the boy’s experience and mindset. As presented in the book, the lyrics, set in an old-fashioned typewriter font, paint their own poetic images of the boy's journey. Each song’s lyrics breaks the story into distinct segments which, along with the artwork, centers us in this boy’s journey. It’s impossible to know what he was actually doing or really thinking from the time he separated from his friends until a few days later when his body was found by a railroad worker but Downie and Lemire create a representation of what the boy could have been feeling and thinking.

Secret Path isn’t necessarily history but a reflection of the past. But it also serves as a warning in a world that’s being fought over because of strong ideologies (or maybe even over the lack of those ideologies.) Without reading the back cover blurb or looking into the history of the stories' inspiration, Chanie Wenjack, Downie and Lemire wisely don’t ground the story to a time or a place. Instead of providing a lesson, Downie and Lemire hope to instill empathy in the reader, not just for the boy but for all of humanity. The lessons of this book aren’t just about one Indigenous boy in Canada but are far more universal in this age of demagoguery and might-makes-right.

And with all of that said, Secret Path ends with a small splash of color and a bit of hope. As the weight of the collective sins of society increase with every page of the book, Downie and Lemire hint that one way or another, there is release from that pressure. While the book in no way forgives the society that took this child away from his parents and his home, Downie and Lemire allow the boy to find a peace that was denied to him by the priest and nuns who took him away. In the end, there is freedom for the boy and his soul that no one was able to take away from him.

Review extra:  Secret Path has been a fascinating project.  It's a book.  It's a music album.  And, thanks to the CBC, it's also a movie.  Below is the Youtube video from the CBC.  The first hour of this is the video of Secret Path and the second hour is a panel discussion about this part about Chanie Wenjack and this part of Canadian history.