Title: The Barren Grounds (The Misewa Saga #1)
Author: David A. Robertson
Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy
Publisher: Puffin Canada
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Release Date: September 8, 2020
Narnia meets traditional Indigenous stories of the sky and constellations in an epic middle grade fantasy series from award-winning author David Robertson.
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.
Morgan and Eli are Indigenous foster children who live in the same foster house in Winnipeg. Eli has just moved in, and even though Morgan moved in two months before, she doesn’t feel comfortable yet because she hasn’t ever had a comfortable long term home. Their foster parents try to make the children feel more at home by bringing in Indigenous traditions, but it only pushes them away further. One night, Morgan and Eli sneak up to the attic and discover a portal into Misewa, a land with talking animals. Misewa has become barren, with a winter that has lasted years. Morgan and Eli have to help their new friend, Ochek the fisher, bring the green time back to their land while also learning about their Indigenous heritage.
This story reminded me of the Chronicles Narnia, but with Indigenous roots. The land that they travel to has talking animals who walk on two legs and speak Cree. This story had some creative aspects because Morgan is a writer and Eli is an artist. It is through Eli’s drawing that they find the mysterious land. As a writer, I liked how these creative arts connected that world with ours.
Though Morgan is from an Indigenous background, she doesn’t know their traditions. She has been in foster care for as long as she can remember, so she doesn’t feel a connection to her heritage. When her foster parents bring in Indigenous food and moccasins for her to wear in an attempt to get closer to her, it pushes her further away because she doesn’t have that connection to her heritage. This reminded me of the residential schools in Canada. Years ago, Indigenous children were taken from their homes and sent to residential schools to remove their traditions and cultural history. The way that Morgan didn’t know her own background reminded me of that because she had also been removed from her family and heritage. However, this wasn’t quite as devastating for Morgan as it was for the children who were sent to residential schools because she was able to learn some of her Indigenous heritage on their trip to Misewa.
This is a beautiful middle grade story. I can’t wait to read the next one!
Thank you Penguin Random House Canada for providing a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
What to read next:
Sugar Falls: A Residential School Story by David Alexander Robertson, Scott B. Henderson (illustrator)
The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline
Have you read The Barren Grounds? What did you think of it?