What would life be like if you had no memory of your mother or father? How far would you go to help those around you? Author David A Robertson, member of the Cree nation, addresses these questions in the book, The Barren Grounds, book one of The Misewa Saga. The reader is introduced to two Indigenous protagonists, Morgan and Eli. Morgan has been in foster care for as long as she can remember and Eli is new to the system. In one scene, Morgan’s well meaning, if clueless foster parents, present a gift to her to mark her second month in their care. It is a set of moccasins. Due to situations like these, Morgan is filled with rage in the opening chapters. She is angry, resentful and also is acutely aware of her emotional struggles. The attic becomes a place of respite for her and at a certain point, a portal to a different world, the world of Aski, and the people there need Morgan and Eli’s help. The most compelling aspects of this book are history embedded into the narrative, history that is damning, yet necessary to learn from, the way in which Robertson weaves Cree culture and language and finally the way in which Roberston utilizes the fantasy genre to tell a stellar story.
(a.) One aspect of this book that really spoke to me is the loss of culture by means of assimilation. When my parents were in school, they were punished, in various ways, for speaking Spanish, even to one another. When my brother and I were born, we were given neutral, easy-to-pronounce names that blended easily into American culture. Spanish was not spoken in the house, with exception of a word or phrase, and we were made to stay out of the sun so we wouldn’t get too dark. The Spanish language, even though it is itself a colonial language, was spoken around me (I grew up in a place that is 90% Hispanic) but never directly to me. It wasn’t until I got to college that I began to realize that I could hardly speak a sentence of Spanish. Since then, I have worked incredibly hard to become as close to a native Spanish speaker as possible. When my second child was born in 2020, I decided that I would speak only Spanish to them, even if it wasn’t perfect and even if I was still learning with the idea that I want them to have what I didn’t have – a grasp of a language that they can us to communicate with the Spanish speakers of the world and a way to connect with their heritage.
Robertson offers morsels of his Cree culture and language. After Morgan and Eli enter the Aski reality, many characters, including Eli, pepper their English with their Native language. One night, Morgan wakes up after having had a dream of her mother holding her and speaking Cree,
“Say it again, like you remember it,” Eli said. “Like you can speak it. Like you’ve always spoken it.”
“But I haven’t. I never did.”
“You know it, even if you don’t think you do” (Robertson, p. 91)
I found myself overcome by emotion at this exchange. Even if she/me has not been as exposed to it/language, it is somewhere inside her. This validated my difficult and frustrating, but rewarding journey to have a bi-lingual house, even as I myself struggle with the language.
(d.) This book brings to reveals history that needs to be read and understood, no matter how horrific. Morgan’s story of being in foster care for nearly her entire life, in its own way, is a reflection of what has happened over the years to Indigenous people. For example, Orange Shirt Day occurs when Morgan and Eli are at school. This is a day in Canada that serves as a day of remembrance and hope for the cultural genocide of Natives who were taken from their homes to attend the Canadian Indian Residential Schools. Even so, Morgan feels this lack of identity and connection with her Native roots. While this book was published in 2020, the grisly history of genocide is still being unearthed. As recently as June of 2021, as many as 751 unmarked graves were discovered in the Saskatchewan province of Canada, in the area of a former residential school (“Canada,” 2021). The Barren Grounds, still, is a work of fiction. It is a fantasy. However, Roberston expertly incorporates these realities into the fabric of the story, expressing to the reader that we need to care about those who try to take from us and the need to remember who we are.
(f.)For someone whose last fantasy novel they read was The Hobbit, I highly enjoyed this work. Roberston creates a narrative in which the reader wants to know what is going to happen in the journey. When they first encounter the portal, the scene is set up in such a suspenseful way, for a minute, I thought I was reading a horror story. Then, the protagonists enter Aski. One aspect I loved about Aski is that time moves incredibly faster there, so that – days in Aski are but hours back home. It also functions as an alternate reality with characters such as fishers and squirrels that walk on two legs and talk. Time is slower in Aski. For Eli, this reality reminds him of his home before foster care. The theme of being remembered and leaving a legacy is particularly well crafted at the end of the novel. In one poignant scene, after a character has perished, that character transforms into a part of the sky and constellation. This character is forever remembered and to be honored in the sky.
The Barren Grounds is a wonderful work of fantasy that has unforgettable characters weaved into history. The story exposes the reader to two unfortunate realities – of growing up in foster care and its effects and of the cultural genocide of Natives in North America. Morgan is Native, but when she is not in Aski, she does not have a single memory of her mother. Lastly, it is a story of helping others and making a difference even when it is difficult. This book is must addition for a public or school library that serves middle grade readers. I eagerly await the publication of the second book in the series, which is set to be published in September 2021.
Roberston, D.A. (2020). The barren grounds: Book one of the Misewa Saga. Penguin Random House.
Canada: 751 unmarked graves found at residential school. (2021, June 24). BBC News. Retrieved July 26, 2021 from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-57592243