“Whistle” novel- Summary by Micheal Rossi

Posted by in Aboriginal Stories, Aboriginal Youth, Novel, Secondary, Teen Fiction

Description of Resource

“Whistle” by Richard Van Camp is a short story or a mini-novel that inspires readers. It highlights mature subjects such as mental health and offers powerful lifelong lessons to its readers. “Whistle” is the type of story that makes the reader think about Aboriginal communities and the value systems that many of them have in place. It also teaches restorative justice and poses the questions, what does someone have to do to prove that he/she is rehabilitated from the bad deeds that he/she has done? And, has a person changed his/her ways of thinking as a result of rehabilitation? Richard Van Camp is a storyteller and an established author whom we had the privilege of inviting into our classroom. After watching Richard fully captivate my students with some of his stories, the importance of oral stories became crystal clear. Not only was the class interested in his stories, but they also learned some valuable lifelong lessons that could be applied to their own lives. Richard Van Camp told the students the story of “Whistle” through a story telling technique that introduced students to living in Fort Simmer, a town in the Northwest Territories with a substantial Indigenous population. It also displayed and taught the students about resiliency and ways to self assess their level of mental health. This resource that has a clear and valuable message that every student should be privy to will be available soon as it has just been published by Pearson.

The Role of Indigenous Knowledges

Indigenous knowledges, content and perspectives are extremely clear in this resource. First of all, Richard Van Cam is a member of the Dogrib (Tlicho) nation in the Northwest Territories and his stories are told/written with the background knowledge and perspective of growing up in a small town in Northern Canada. Having a clear perspective of how small indigenous communities worked together to survive was important in getting across the message in this book. The other aspect of the small community that came through in his writing was his ability to portray the fact that everyone knows everyone else’s business in small communities.

Indigenous content is also made clear when Richard Van Camp refers to the Dene nation and shows his clear respect for Elders in the community. Elders in the story were given gifts of caribou and were respected by the younger generations. For example, in the novel, Darcy (the boy is in a youth detention facility as a result of bullying Brody and possessing stolen goods) said that he was glad his Uncle David passed away before he ever saw him in the youth detention facility. Also, his Uncle David would live off the land and make sure that nothing was wasted. This knowledge and technique of not wasting any of the caribou was passed down to Darcy. This communal process demonstrating the passing of knowledge from generation to generation is a key attribute of Aboriginal learning. These teachings were experiential in nature and Darcy in return wished to pass on his learnings to Brody (the character that Darcy victimized and is writing to). When the caribou were hunted, it was expressed that it was important to show your appreciation to the people that have been important to you and celebrate important occasions. Uncle David made sure he shared his caribou with the Elders, family and friends. Also, it showed the significance of community when Uncle David even shared any excess caribou with people with whom he did not get along. This demonstrated that families needed to work together and that everyone looked out for one another in the community. In the novel, Darcy is writing letters to Brody to apologize through a process called restorative justice. Restorative justice is an example of holistic learning because it is attempting to satisfy his emotional, physical, spiritual and intellectual well-being. In completing restorative justice, Darcy is also joining in a journey of being a lifelong learner.

Benefits and Challenges of the Resource

There are many benefits in using this resource in a classroom. First of all, students are able to connect fairly easily with at least one of the characters (Darcy, the bully or Brody, the victim). As a result of the connections made, students are able to engage in meaningful and deep discussions that are powerful in developing knowledges. Secondly, there are many different messages that students can take from this resource. One of the messages that sticks with me as I read through this novel is, “No matter how bad things are, you can always turn your life around” (Van Camp, 2015, p.18). Finally, this novel delves deeply into some of the key attributes of Aboriginal learning which can be highlighted in the classroom. The key attributes that are referred to in the text are: learning is holistic, learning is a lifelong process, learning is experiential in nature, and learning is a communal activities. Although “Whistle” is an excellent resource, it doesn’t go without its challenges or limitations. First of all, this novel has extremely mature content that only upper intermediate and high school students can relate to. When talking about issues such as mental health and restorative justice, students need to be mature enough to be able to understand and handle deep and serious discussions (or the instructor will need a prior class to help students prepare for the emotional content of the book). This deep level of thinking required for students to get the full extent of the novel is also difficult for some students. The lessons are extremely valuable but can be so much more meaningful and beneficial to the learner if it is enriched with an in depth and engaging class discussion after reading.

There are a number of ways that a teacher could incorporate this resource into classroom lessons. After reading the book, the most apparent one is using the acronym H.A.L.T. (Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired) in the classroom. Students could be asked each morning to assess all four components of the acronym and be taught how to satisfy each of those needs. This really focuses on the importance of being holistic in our learning endeavors. The medicine wheel tells us about the importance of balance in our lives and H.A.L.T. is a quick check to ensure that balance is starting to be achieved. In the novel, it states that if students do not satisfy all four components of H.A.L.T., they are on their way to having mental health issues. There are also ways to connect this acronym to Western influences, such as the internet, that pressure students have every day. Social media has become such a huge part of an adolescent’s life and it is contributing to an increased amount of loneliness amongst individuals. This novel can create a deep discussion about how Western society is influencing the ways that children are raised and experience nature. Many students today have very little to no knowledge of the land around them because they have been caught up in the race in which society is forcing upon them.

Restorative justice is another aspect of this book that can bring up extensive discussions and writings. It is important for students to realize that everyone makes mistakes but it is what they do after their mistakes that defines them as a person. This resource should develop a deep level of conversation about what Darcy can do to earn the trust of Brody back. An activity that can be created to emphasize this point is to have the students write a letter back to Darcy from the perspective of Brody. Students would then have to justify either forgiving or not accepting Darcy’s heartfelt letters. Students would realize that forgiveness is a long process and it is not always easy. Patience is required for forgiveness to occur as it must be determined if the apology is sincere through actions as well as words.

Another effective way that this story can be incorporated into the classroom is to explain to students the significance of oral language in the aboriginal cultures and have them interview their parents/guardians. Students would be asked to encourage their parents/guardians to share a learning or story that had been passed down from previous generations. If students were given permission to share their stories, they could then be communicated in class to their peers as a learning opportunity.

“Whistle” by Richard Van Camp is an extremely powerful resource and learning tool that can be used in the classroom. Teachers are encouraged to read and use this resource to promote Indigenous learnings and develop mental health awareness.


 Van Camp, R. (2015). Whistle. Canada: Pearson.