The Barren Grounds – by David A. Robertson, Tundra Books, 2020
Readers and critics will see in The Barren Grounds, David A. Robertson’s first book in the projected Misewa Saga, a connection to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia novels. Robertson himself alludes to the influence, in which his teenaged protagonists cross through a portal to an alternative universe, one resonant with spiritual messages. Yet The Barren Grounds is hardly a mere homage to Lewis, or even a response to the classic Narnia series framed around Indigenous culture. Robertson’s vision is his own and his protagonists, both human and mythic, chart their own course through an emotional, environmental, and cultural journey. The novel’s quest plot, as the characters seek to return a devastated community to the “Green Time” of ecological balance, is exciting, but the complexity of his protagonists’ inner journey is what truly sets the book apart.
Morgan and Eli are two Indigenous children placed with the same foster parents, the well-meaning couple, Katie and James. No, the young professionals are not grossly insensitive do-gooders, although their kindness and good intentions are inadequate faced with the depth of Morgan and Eli’s losses, and the almost insurmountable history of injustice which will not be resolved by a combination of warmth and acknowledgement of the children’s background. Eli has more accessible memories of his past, and of the Cree language. He is also a gifted artist, able to create visible images of his experiences. Morgan struggles with anger and grief, having lived with several families who were completely insensitive to her pain. She is also unable to reconcile anger against the mother whom she believes abandoned her with the vacuum of actual knowledge of her mother’s life.
When the children enter the world of Misewa, they encounter environmental catastrophe due to exploitation of the land and its resources. Their guides, Ochek the Fisher and Arik, a Squirrel skilled in both survival and wry humor, become fully developed characters, not mere symbols of a superior but embattled way of life. At each point where the author could have resolved the tensions between the children’s two worlds, he chooses instead to explore the messy inconsistencies of their mission. Morgan is an unforgettable character, fiercely independent and unwilling to be defined by adults, but also acutely vulnerable and introspective. She is a stark contrast to the female characters in the Narnia books, who in many ways embody Lewis’s discomfort with female agency. At every step of the way Morgan resists the temptation towards simplistic nobility, as when she asks with exasperation, “how can I help a village full of walking, talking, animals stuck in some never-ending winter,” or when she responds to Ochek’s encouraging reminder, “You’ve got great strength in you!” with the sardonic, “This is a really bad time to talk like a fantasy character!”
Robertson has created a world of compelling fantasy, personal anguish, and unanswerable questions about how to right past wrongs. Young readers and adults alike who cross the portal with anticipation will be rewarded with a sense of possibility, both individual and global.