Friday, March 19, 2021

The Barren Grounds - David Alexander Robertson

Summary: 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. (Summary and pic from goodreads.com)

My Review: I’m always game for a good middle grade reader recommendation, and this was no exception. When The Barren Grounds was described as a Narnia-esque story, I knew I had to check it out. I mean, who doesn’t want to re-live that fun time of the wonder of finding a portal to another world in the back of their closet? As a kid (and maybe now?) wouldn’t it be awesome if we could just hop to some other awesome place through a portal right in our house? Maybe this is just the quarantine talking…

This book starts right off with some good conflict and some heartache—the main characters are in foster care, in a new home, have just met each other. While this could go many ways (because there are so many sad situations involving foster care), luckily the foster parents are kind and thoughtful individuals who are trying to give the children a good home and a loving environment that they haven’t had before. These children are unique in the typical foster child story in that they are First Nations (the native people of Canada), and so the foster parents are trying to connect with them by bringing in cultural things (Native food, moccasins) that they assume the children will immediately recognize and open up about their experience. As with many well-meaning actions of white parents toward children of different backgrounds, this doesn’t exactly go as planned and it introduces the tension and the confusion the children have regarding their First Nations background. Eli, the younger of the foster children, remembers his upbringing and his cultural practices. Morgan, the older girl, does not and is not connected to her culture. Through these lenses we experience the traditional indigenous stories of the sky and constellations.

I really enjoyed the cultural stories in this book, and especially the cultural reconnecting that the children do. I appreciated the indigenous words interwoven into the story as well, and the traditional ways that were explored when the children stepped through to the other world. I thought the story itself was interesting, and I enjoyed the conflict and the multi-dimensional characters. I particularly enjoyed the treatment of one of the main villains who had a redemptive storyline in the end. The use of animals was fun, and I appreciated how majestic they were. There weren’t dumbed-down little Snow White animals that just twitter inane things; they were the heroes of the story. Although the tone is very Narnia-esque in its delivery, the story itself is not Narnia-esque at all. I always worry that a story that has any similarities to a very classic story will end up being just a cheap rip-off, but this is not the case with The Barren Grounds. It stands as its own story. Plus, I enjoyed the few tongue-in-cheek references to Narnia that Morgan, one of the main protagonists, brings up in the story, giving a nod to her familiarity with Narnia but also the acknowledgement that this is different.

My only complaint about this book is that the writing is not stellar. It’s not bad, and it’s certainly functional and non-intrusive, but there are so many children’s books in this genre that are just fantastic writing—magical, almost. This writing is not that. However, the story was good and the cultural representation, especially the story of children reconnecting to their culture in an authentic and immersive way, is so important that it outweighs any awkwardness or clunkiness that the writing may bring.

If you are a person who is into (or encouraging the middle grade readers around you) reading a wide variety of literature, with an emphasis on voices that are not necessarily always in the forefront, this is your book. The story is action-packed and accessible, talking animals are always cool and fun, and it opens the readers eyes to a cultural narrative that is important and unique. It is also #1 in the series so I’m looking forward to more adventures in this world!

My Rating: 3.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: There is a little bit of light language in this book, and some general discussion of abuse in a foster home.

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