Cherie Dimaline is a Métis writer and activist from the Georgian Bay Métis Nation in Ontario, Canada. She has received a number of awards for her novels and short stories, none of which I’ve yet had the pleasure of reading — but after reading Empire of Wild (2020), I’m definitely going to track them down. Her use of First Nations themes and folklore is fascinating, and a delightful change from the many fantasies based on European images and tales.
Dimaline has set Empire of Wild in Arcand, a tiny Canadian town full of halfbreeds (the author’s word, first used on p. 1 and repeated throughout the novel) — the offspring of French voyageur fathers and First Nations mothers, part of the Métis people — on the shores of Georgian Bay in Ontario. The indigenous people have been constantly moved away from the shoreline, replaced by million-dollar cottages and the millionaires who live in them. They save their loonies in the hopes of buying back the land, even one acre at a time. They share the land they do own with the rogarou, the creature of a hundred stories, the monster that will get you if you do something wrong. He’s “a dog, a man, a wolf … He was whatever made you shiver but he was always there.”
Joan’s husband Victor walked out after the worst fight of their (usually very happy) marriage. That was eleven months and six days ago as Empire of Wild opens, and she hasn’t seen him since. Not for want of looking though: sometimes it seems to her that that is all she ever does. The family pitched in looking when Victor first vanished, but by the end of the second month, Joan was the only one still searching.
One night Joan gets so drunk that she still feels drunk when she wakes up the next morning in her car in a Walmart parking lot. A big white tent occupies a corner of the parking lot, and Joan investigates just as a prayer meeting ends. Joan is fending off the attentions of a polite young man who wants to tell her the good news when a man walks into the tent, a handsome man in a black suit despite the heat. It’s Victor. But he’s Reverend Eugene Wolff now, and he denies knowing Joan. The police check him out, and everything seems to fit. Before Joan can figure anything out, she learns that her grandmother, who lived with her, has been killed by — well, maybe a wolf?
Heiser, the business end of the revival and a thoroughly disgusting piece of work, takes steps to ensure that Joan can’t find Reverend Wolff again. He uses the revival to soften up First Nations peoples to sell their lands for pipelines or the like. He is a master manipulator, and he’s not going to let any bereaved woman screw things up for him.
The stage is now set for a battle between Joan and Heiser for the body and soul of Victor, a man lost to himself, a man in the grip of another man who is not merely a man. Heiser’s evil becomes more pronounced and his machinations to keep Joan and Victor apart clever and effective. But Joan is strong and determined, and she does not give up. Not even in the face of a rogarou.
It’s a good story, and all the more so because it provides a terrific portrait of a First Nations people of whom I previously knew nothing. The Métis people number less than a million throughout the United States and Canada, and are a distinct indigenous group that some would deny a tribal identity due to their mixed European and First Nations heritage. Dimaline tells her story slant; for instance, she, never says outright that men grow their hair long and braid it, but makes that apparent when one character threatens another with cutting off his braid, or by Joan’s sorrow when she sees Victor as the Reverend with cropped hair. The novel doesn’t talk down to readers, but enmeshes them in the life of Joan’s family in all its relationships, arguments, hopes and dreams.
Dimaline also writes beautifully, turning a phrase so elegantly that one stops and rereads just to enjoy the play of words a second or third time. Early in the book, for instance, she describes a snowstorm like this:
She looked up into a sky layered to navy past the greasy halo of city lights. Snowflakes tumbled down so huge and slow it was as if they’d been cut from a folded paper by a pair of delicate shears. The parking lot was a poem about white. The neon bar sign for Andre’s was a Christmas tree, all dressed. And the fat, black Harleys out front were eight little reindeer all in a row.
I’ve been in snowstorms like that — not for decades now, but Dimaline’s words took me straight back to the Midwestern winters of my youth. It’s a technique she pulls off again and again, and the poetry of her writing, combined with her strong storytelling, makes me eager to read all of her work that’s out there — and anything else that might come from her pen.