THE BARREN GROUNDS, by David A. Robertson, Puffin Canada, Sept. 8, 2020, Hardcover, $17.99 (ages 10 and up)
The Barren Grounds, by David A. Robertson, is a middle-grade fantasy unlike any other.
Morgan and Eli, two Indigenous children forced away from their families and communities, are brought together in a foster home in Winnipeg, Manitoba. They each feel disconnected, from their culture and each other, and struggle to fit in at school and at their new home — until they find a secret place, walled off in an unfinished attic bedroom. A portal opens to another reality, Askí, bringing them onto frozen, barren grounds, where they meet Ochek (Fisher). The only hunter supporting his starving community, Misewa, Ochek welcomes the human children, teaching them traditional ways to survive. But as the need for food becomes desperate, they embark on a dangerous mission. Accompanied by Arik, a sassy Squirrel they catch stealing from the trapline, they try to save Misewa before the icy grip of winter freezes everything — including them. —Synopsis provided by Puffin Canada
At first, The Barren Grounds calls to mind Narnia with children traveling from the real world into a magical land covered in snow. There are walking, talking animals who live in houses. There’s an evil villain whose actions have left the land in permanent winter.
But The Barren Grounds is more than that. The book is built on traditional Indigenous stories of the sky and constellations, and it is so much better for it. As a white reader, I was fascinated by the traditions, I empathized with white foster parents who are trying their hardest and still not “getting it,” and my heart ached for Morgan and Eli. I can’t speak to whether it embodies truths of Indigenous peoples, however, author David A. Robertson is a member of the Norway House Cree Nation, and I trust he knows his stuff.
The Barren Grounds has two main elements.
First, it is a story of self-discovery. Morgan is angry. She’s angry at everyone and everything that crosses her path. But there’s a part of Morgan that wants more, which in turn, makes her angrier. Morgan has never really experienced love. She’s never been fully included in a family. So when it’s offered to her, she doesn’t know what to do. The one thing she does know, is that she doesn’t want to go backward. Her inner dialogue, her regulation of feelings and the tidal wave of emotions that flow from the pages ring true.
Eli, who plays a more supporting role, is also working through how he ended up in foster care. This is Eli’s first placement, though, and his experiences help put Morgan’s situation in perspective.
The second element is the adventure. The magical world in which the children find themselves is both foreign and familiar. In many ways, they feel more at home there. This grounds the fantasy and helps the reader place themselves in Misewa.
The Barren Grounds is the first book in a planned series, and I look forward to where Robertson takes readers next.
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