EMPIRE OF WILD
Cherie Dimaline (cheriedimaline.com)
Weidenfeld & Nicolson (weidenfeldandnicolson.co.uk)
Stepping outside to cool off after an argument, Victor disappears into the forest and his wife, Joan, spends eleven months and six days trying to find him. On the seventh day of that fateful twelfth month, a hungover Joan pulls into the parking lot of a local Walmart for a coffee and finds, in the corner of the lot, the clean white lines of a revival ministry tent. As the service ends, and crowds flood out into the bright morning light, something draws Joan inside, where she meets the charismatic Reverend Eugene Wolff. Except Joan can see right off that Eugene Wolff is her missing husband, Victor, who has no idea who she is or, it seems, his own true identity. With the help of her twelve-year-old cousin, Zeus and the superstitions and talismans of community elder, Ajean, Joan sets out to bring Victor back to himself, and to her.
I have been blogging for quite some time now (no, you at the back, I don’t think it’s too long), and one of the things that keeps me going are the unusual reads that come my way, the books that I might overlook if left to my own devices. There have been a few over the years, books that – based on the blurb, or the cover, or for whatever reason – seem to reside just outside my comfort zone. Sometimes a handful of pages are enough to tell me that my radar was right, and we part on good terms. Other times, the book in question draws me in and reminds me why I love to read, and why – though, like everyone, I have my favourites – I love to discover new authors, and books I would otherwise have overlooked. It should come as no surprise that Cherie Dimaline’s Empire of Wild falls firmly and squarely into the latter category.
Dimaline’s book introduces us to the small-town community of Arcand, in the Georgian Bay area on the Canadian shores of Lake Huron. Arcand is the home of a thriving Métis community – First Nations, indigenous, self-styled half-breeds, and in Joan’s own words as she punches a racist Albertan cowboy in his shiny white veneers, “[w]e’re not from India, jackass” – of which Joan is a member. Devoutly Catholic in many ways, the elder members of the community still hold to many of the old ways: superstitions and totems, talismans and old-wives tales that have kept them alive and thriving for centuries. But more than this, Dimaline – a member of the Métis community herself – delves into their stories, their oral histories, and finds a monster to stand against Joan and her quest to bring her husband home: rogarou.
A werewolf by any other name, the rogarou is a story told to keep the community’s children in check: don’t walk home alone or rogarou will get you; treat women with respect or rogarou will get you. Having encountered the fabled beast – or at least believing she did – shortly after her thirteenth birthday, Joan is convinced rogarou is behind her husband’s disappearance and his amnesia, brain-washing or whatever has happened to him. When her grandmother – her Mere – is attacked by a wolf shortly after her first encounter with the revival ministry, Joan is in no doubt about just what she’s facing. And she’ll take all the help she can get.
A touch of supernatural, a soupçon of horror, but when you boil it down, Empire of Wild is a story about people. At the heart Joan and Victor. To one side of them, the pompous manipulator Thomas Heiser – the man who has stolen Joan’s husband – and the perfect little puppets who follow him, safe in the knowledge that they are doing God’s work, doing right. Arrayed against them a community who are the sum total of hundreds – maybe more – of years of stories and superstitions, at the forefront of which Ajean, the wise old witch-woman, and Johnny Cash-loving Zeus, a twelve-year-old boy with a big heart and an attitude to match. It will come as no surprise to anyone who is paying attention that one side of this equation is all white. Throw in a pipeline project that Joan discovers has ties with the revival tent, and Heiser’s need to have a Native Reverend for his figurehead suddenly becomes oh-so-clear. Through the eyes – and voice – of that same Albertan cowboy (pre any impromptu dental work and geography lesson from Joan), we see the lot of this small community, and the many communities like it across North America and the world.
Empire of Wild is one of this year’s more pleasant surprises, a book that comes out of nowhere and knocks your socks off. It’s a story built on stories, a collection of the legends of the Métis people, and more than a few stories sprung fully-formed from the brain of the author: never has a minor character strutted so fully-formed across the background of a novel than Zeus’ father, Jimmy Fine. It’s a brisk read, full of heart and wit, a wonderful introduction to a talent that this reader can’t wait to hear more from. A book that spits in the eye of standard genre classification, Empire of Wild is like nothing else you’ve ever read. It’s also, in a word, brilliant (fucking brilliant if you want me to elaborate); go read it!