‘Secret Path’ box set contains plenty of goodies for eyes, ears

I had to opportunity to tour Canada again this summer with my band The Echo & Sway. As part of our time in London, we had this neat little pre-show gig at Groove Records. While we only played to a few, and were doing this gig as a bit of promo, we weren’t paid, but boy we hit the jackpot when they offered discounts on vinyl. While my guitarist Anthony picked up a Tom Waits reissue, I got my hands on a copy of DC’s “Young Animal” album, a Record Store Day exclusive with music by Gerard Way.

But the real zinger this trip was the “Secret Path” by Canadiens Gord Downie and Jeff Lemire. Not only does this box set contain an album, but also the graphic novel of “Secret Path” and a few more goodies to feast your eyes and ears upon.

“Secret Path” tells the story of Chanie Wenjack, a child resident (and escapee) of the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School. There’s no telling what atrocities Chanie had suffered while there, but his choice to escape and walk along railroad tracks to a home which he did not know was some 400 miles away.

What makes this endeavor all the more unsettling (the graphic novel and album, not to mention the escape) is that it bridges the approach to the artistic medium in a way I’ve never before experienced. Jeff Lemire’s recently-ended Royal City (which I’ve also reviewed in this column) took a Spotify playlist of music that he’d been listening to as he wrote individual issues. This is a departure from that idea.

I know I read my books too fast. I’m a visual reader of course (this IS a comic book column) but being a writer first, I’m more interested in the words than the pictures. It normally takes me another read-through (or two!) to really fall into a project.

Not “Secret Path.” Other than the opening song “The Stranger,” this album coincides anywhere from 4-10 pages of graphic novel story with 3-6 minutes of music. Gord Downie’s songs written from the perspective of Chanie and the tragic departure from his residential school prison are most times pretty straight-forward (think musical.) There are no words to read as the graphic novel unfolds, so I would continually go back and pore over panels and dip into the lyrics as they were being sung.

Knowing the outcome of the story heightened my sense of longing as to how the story was going to turn out, what our protagonist was going to go through to get to the end. We already know how it was going to end, but…sheesh. Lemire deftly weaves past, present, and future with his simple, but expressive line drawings and watercolors. There’s so much to gush about here, and so much existential reward in the art.

“Secret Path” is available as an LP boxed set with graphic novel and extra goodies. You can also buy the standalone graphic novel with digital download. There is also a two-hour documentary and question-and-answer documentary from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on YouTube.

Proceeds will be donated to The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) at the University of Manitoba. The NCTR is dedicated to preserving the history of the residential schools in Canada, making this history known, and moving their country forward on the patch of reconciliation.