1198 Land, colonialism, and temptation
Empire of Wild
by Cherie Dimaline
Toronto: Penguin Random House (Vintage Canada), 2019
$21.00 / 9780735277205
Reviewed by David Milward
Cherie Dimaline, a member of the Georgian Bay Metis community in Ontario, has emerged as a leading writer of Indigenous fiction. One of her novels, The Marrow Thieves, has won multiple awards including the Governor-General’s Award for English-language children’s literature. That novel focused on a dystopian revival of genocide against Indigenous peoples. Her latest novel, Empire of Wild, is the story of a protagonist named Joan and her efforts to bring her disappeared husband back into her life. There are two major sources of tension in the book. One of them is distinctive to the contemporary struggles of Indigenous peoples in North America. The other is of universal relevance to all peoples.
The colonization of what is now North America was realized in large part by confining Indigenous peoples to smaller parcels of land that were perceived to have diminished value. The settlers very often expropriated the larger masses of land that were fertile for farming, while the Indigenous survivors of colonization were left with the scraps. A twist of irony, and one that has often brought more tribulation for Indigenous peoples, is that those scraps often turned out to be on top of rich reserves of natural gas, oil, or mineral resources. Now cue big corporations seeking to exploit Indigenous peoples even further as agents of continued colonialism.
One of the key tensions in the novel is also a tension felt within many Indigenous communities themselves. To what extent should Indigenous peoples make themselves partners to resource industries seeking to extract natural resources from underneath their lands? Such is the grinding poverty that exists in many Indigenous communities that some members will want to pursue those corporate relationships, as they see no other way to obtain relief from the poverty. Other members will see corporate partnerships as a betrayal of Indigenous values of being responsible stewards over the natural world, and opening the community to lopsided exploitation.
The other source of tension is an honest and mature exploration of intimate relationships. Romantic fiction, the Harlequin series in particular, is often decried as an exercise in wish-fulfilment. The marriage of romance with Gothic horror, Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight series in particular, has been similarly criticized. And Empire of Wild on the surface seems like it’s going to run in the same vein. Joan’s beloved husband, Victor, has been gone for almost a year without any knowledge as to his fate or where he has gone. She finds him at a Walmart with a new identity as a passionate Christian preacher named Eugene Wolff. He apparently does not remember her, and even apparently has a new girlfriend, a young blonde girl named Cecile, who herself appears utterly devoted to the ministry. Joan gradually begins to suspect that Victor has become a werewolf-like creature known among the Metis as a “rogarou.” “Rogarou” is itself an inheritance of the classical French term for werewolf, “Loup Garou.” She also comes to believe that Victor is enthralled to Heiser, who she suspects is the master “rogarou.”
It sounds Twilight enough on the surface. But Dimaline demonstrates a far more mature and sophisticated understanding of intimate relationships when she describes Joan’s flashback moment that drives the narrative for the rest of the story. Is a moment where both tensions come together in a quite poignant way. Joan inherited a lot almost a year ago from her father. It is to her the most beautiful piece of land in the world, and not just for its natural sights. It’s a piece of her father to remember him by, and it’s also the land of her ancestors. Victor implores Joan to sell it to developers in exchange for “life-changing money.” An argument ensues, and she angrily shuts down Victor’s efforts to change her mind. He walks out the door, and never to be seen again until that discovery at the Walmart.
The problem with wish-fulfillment fiction is that “happily ever after” is treated as a given. Any tension, such as there is, is how you get to “happily ever after.” But we never see what “happily ever after” looks like after the destined partners commit to each other. I used to be Family Law Duty Counsel in Calgary, so I have had a peripheral view of a lot of relationship breakdowns. The perspective I have gained from that experience is that no couple can truly say “ever after” until they have reached the end of their earthly lives, and “ever after” means finally having crossed that finish line. The “happily” part itself requires a lot of effort, compromise, and give and take between the partners. A lot can go wrong despite the partners’ best intentions. Certainly there is blame to go around for both partners during a lot of relationship breakdowns. But sometimes one partner is fully invested, is willing to put in the effort and dedication, and all it takes it for the other partner to check out and make everything fall off the rails.
Dimaline shows that realistic understanding of intimate relationships as Joan remains a tortured soul who constantly second-guesses herself following that critical moment. Should she have at least heard Victor out? Or should she have even considered the possibility of selling her land, and maybe with a better life for both Victor and herself? Or was Victor at fault for wanting her to part with something that he knew was precious to her? Was it Victor who betrayed her? Is Victor truly enthralled to a master “rogarou” named Heiser? Does that mean Joan has a responsibility to try and save Victor from Heiser, even if it means putting it all on the line and risking her own life? Or has Victor truly moved on from Joan of his own free will? Has Victor willingly chosen a new life for himself with Cecile and Heiser and the ministry? Is Joan’s responsibility instead to let go of Victor, and respect his choices for a new life for himself? The tensions inherent in intimate relationships remain front and centre throughout the narrative.
But the tensions surrounding corporate exploitation of Indigenous lands remain very much a part of the narrative, as she comes to see Mr. Heiser as behind efforts to open up community lands for resource extraction. Are they also tied in with Heiser using Victor as the public face for the new ministry? I will stop there, to avoid providing spoilers for anyone who has yet to read the book. I can recommend Empire of Wild for reading for anyone. The themes in it will resonate for Indigenous readers specifically, but also carry a universal appeal.
David Milward is an Associate Professor of Law with the University of Victoria, and a member of the Beardy’s & Okemasis First Nation of Duck Lake, Saskatchewan. He assisted the Truth and Reconciliation Commission with the authoring of its final report on Indigenous justice issues, and is the author of Aboriginal Justice and the Charter: Realizing a Culturally Sensitive Interpretation of Legal Rights (UBC Press, 2013), which was joint winner of the K.D. Srivastava Prize for Excellence in Scholarly Publishing and was short-listed for Canadian Law & Society Association Book Prize, both for books published in 2013. David is also the author of numerous articles on Indigenous justice in leading national and international law journals. Editor’s note: David Milward has also reviewed books by Billy-Ray Belcourt, Christa Couture, Darryl Leroux, Bob Joseph with Cynthia F. Joseph, Elspeth Kaiser-Derrick, David B. MacDonald, and Darrel J. McLeod for The Ormsby Review.
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