Indigenous History Month READS: The Barren Grounds, by David A. Robertson
Last week, we explored some resources for learning about Indigenous history month. National Indigenous People’s Day also occurred on June 21st, which is a day to actively reflect on the cultural diversity, linguistic richness, and outstanding contributions of First Nations, Metis, and Inuit peoples to the vibrant mosaic of Canadian life. Considering this, we would like to profile a well-known Indigenous author and review the first book in his fantasy series for school aged children: The Barren Grounds, by David A. Robertson.
This novel, aimed at middle grade readers, introduces us to Morgan and Eli, two Indigenous kids from different backgrounds who have been adopted by a well-meaning white couple in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Both children have been struggling with school, and they feel disconnected from their Indigenous culture and each other. That changes one day when Eli, who is an artist, draws a picture of a wintry landscape which transports them into a different world called Askī, or the North Country.
Eventually, they wander into a village called Misewa (a Cree term meaning “all that is”). There they meet a talking bear called Ochek (which means “fisher” in Cree), who has been providing for his village while the world has been locked in perpetual winter. The hunter Ochek teaches them traditional ways to survive by creating traplines to bring game in for the inhabitants of the village. But as the animals move farther away and become harder to find, it becomes clear that they must bring back summertime before everyone, including them, freezes to death. They embark on a dangerous journey along with Ochek, accompanied by a sassy squirrel named Arik to make their way to the edge of the world to find the sun that was stolen from the North Country.
Figure 1: Cover of The Barren Grounds (2020) by David A, Robertson.
I enjoyed reading this book, in addition to learning about various Indigenous words and mythology which were woven seamlessly into the narrative of the book. Morgan and Eli are fully fleshed out characters with understandable motivations for their actions; at first, they do not want to help Ochek bring back the summer, they just want to get home. But eventually they realize it is the right thing to do to help their adoptive community. It was interesting to see how the author altered and changed the source material, since he was clearly inspired by the Chronicles of Narnia series written by C.S Lewis, by transplanting it into an Indigenous context. This is planned to be a multi-part series - the second book, The Great Bear, was published in September 2021. The third book, The Stone Child, will be published on August 2nd, 2022.
David Alexander Robertson is the author of many books for children and teens, including On the Trapline and When We Were Alone. The first book in the Misewa Saga, The Barren Grounds, was shortlisted for many awards, including the Governor General’s Award, the TD Award for Children’s Literature, and the Ontario Library Association’s Silver Birch Award. He is a member of Norway House Cree Nation and currently lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba. To learn more about him, check out his website at https://www.darobertson.ca/.