For most readers David Robertson’s The Barren Grounds will be in many ways a familiar stroll through something similar to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia. But despite all the ways in which this new Candian book for young readers parallels the classic story, The Barren Grounds is a powerful challenge to European ways of knowing that challenges readers of all ages to think about their own role in colonialism and through, on the land. These are themes that the target age demographic of the book might not be able to articulate, and I don’t want to make the entire argument for what young readers may or may not get from the book here, but as older readers of a story meant for children there are surprising layers which challenge set perspectives of the world. In particular I was continuously struck by the ways in which notions of ‘plenty’ and ‘enough’ were recontextualized in unfamiliar ways.
The book begins with a striking commentary on one of the situations in which Western viewpoints vastly underestimate what is enough. Morgan is a young First Nations girl who has been in foster care with white families ever since she could remember and her sense of anger at the disconnect from her traditional knowledge is dominating. She has the things that most Western perspectives would define as more than enough for a child: food, shelter and adults who are trying their best. However, this removal from her community creates a gap and sense of loss that comes through very clearly. The contrast becomes especially clear with the arrival of Eli who has just been removed from his community and Morgan is faced with someone who has some of the connection she craves but who is also mourning its loss for the first time. It is a reminder that simply providing the necessities of life does not necessarily mean that society is doing ‘enough’ for a child and other dimensions of a good life must be considered.
The arrival into Aski, the land the children cross too through Eli’s drawing, offers confrontations about how to define ‘enough’ when the land is concerned. Misewa, a community of talking animals, is dying under eternal winter which has driven away the natural food sources that have sustained the local creatures in the past. Unlike in the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe this isn’t a winter that has been imposed but rather a man has stolen summer leaving only lean times in its palace. While the main quest of the story is to rescue the summer birds for the survival of the creatures of Misewa, simple interpretations of winter and suffering are undermined. Most notably when Arik, the anthropomorphic squirrel, reminds both the villain and the readers that hard times in winter are survivable, in the wake of summers of plenty. The Barren Grounds is not suggesting that winter should be forever avoided, moreso that winter is a part of the cycle of the world that must be worked through in balance with nature in the same way that warmer, more plentiful times should be.
While the creatures of Misewa are willing to deal with hard times in the natural rhythms of the world the story’s villain, the settler man who stole the summer birds, illustrates the problematics of Western notions of plenty. He is constantly consuming, looking for more and forcing it where more is not willingly given, yet he is shrinking and twisted. His definition of plenty is tied to constantly pursuing more even if it isn’t necessary. He has little care for the land and no sense of guilt for the damage he has wrought because in his mind he never has enough. The physical deformation of the man who stole the summer birds is a powerful image that spoke clearly back to the rampant societal problems that have just grown as we have continued to damage the land in pursuit of an ill defined notion of plenty.
All of this is probably a more involved reading than most of the target age demographic would articulate but I think the strength of these themes will make The Barren Grounds relevant to a much wider range of readers. It is a book that challenged me to think about how I understand my own consumption, the ways I tend to compartmentalize social issues in ways that make them seem more manageable but really fail to recognize my own place in the systems that have led to interconnected crises. For younger readers I think that Robertson has written characters whose emotion is overwhelmingly real and even without the vocabulary to write rambling blog posts younger readers will be struck by the same strength of character that initially sucked me into the books. More than just a reworking of Narnia, David Robertson’s The Barren Lands is a series that I look forward to having as a continued challenge to how I conceptualize intersectionality in the many injustices of the world while also offering a model that was used successfully by indegenous people in Canada and around the world for thousands of years.