Empire of Wild is an unpredictable story of myth, mystery and madness set on the shores of Georgian Bay. The prologue tells us how Arcand — a fictional, yet believable, piece of undesirable land — came to be inhabited. It is a modern-day short story of how Indigenous people were displaced to reserves. This story is told in and amongst cultural and historical references about Indigenous people. The myth of the Rogorou, a half-man half-wolf vampire like creature, leads the way, and gradually becomes the centre of the story. Threads of every day life for an indigenous family are woven into the backdrop of the ever-pressing present day issue of oil and gas corporations dividing communities.
Like in her best-seller The Marrow Thieves, Cherie Dimaline does not hold back in telling the unjust stories of Canadian Indigenous people with a tale that includes an unnerving metaphorical element of fantasy/horror.
Empire of Wild begins as a story about a woman, Joan, whose husband, Victor, likely left him and she’s desperately searching for him. She may have a drinking problem and definitely has some complicated family dynamics, however this kind of story isn’t very exciting for me. Just before I roll my eyes at another missing person mystery, I skim-read a chapter where Victor takes over the narrative — and I’m hooked.
Victor is either high, lost in some terrible nightmare, or stuck in a place between realities and being hunted by a rogarou — a half man, half wolf mythical creature.
Back in Joan’s reality, she finds him but he’s been brainwashed or possessed to think that he is Reverend Wolff of a travelling Ministry that pops up in various Indigenous communities around Georgian Bay promoting the word of God. The man overseeing the Ministry — Heiser — is creepy and suspicious to say the least. The reader later learns that he is an executive in the oil, gas, and mining industry, and Joan learns even worse truths about him.
Joan permits her nephew, Zeus, to join her on a search that at first, seems harmless but becomes increasingly dangerous. While this story is obviously fantasy, there are real-life references that reach out from the pages and touch me. There is a Canada’s Wonderland tumbler, mention of CAA, and the book is set in our backyard of South Georgian Bay. Each time I think about it it feels real, like it really happened, but I shake my head and remind myself that a rogarou is a mythical creature. Definitely.
At first, Joan, seems unreliable. She drinks, has been wallowing in self pity for a year since her husband left, and while she’s sure she spots him as Reverand Wolff in the travelling Ministry — we can’t be completely sure. As Joan earns credit piecing the story together, we meet Zeus, her nephew and Ajean, the community elder. Zeus is portrayed as a typical young teen and is a little lost in the family drama. Ajean brings magic and myth from Indigenous culture to the plot. If you met Ajean in real life she'd be spinning magic into your world before you even shook hands. When we finally meet Victor, we learn that he is a devoted husband who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, lending more credibility to Joan’s take on why her husband is missing. While Victor wrestles with a rogarou, we meet Heiser. Heiser makes my skin crawl — he is the perfect representation of a greedy and predatory corporation and something darker than a rogarou.
Despite my youthful appearance, I am not a millennial. Thus, it’s embarrassing how little I learned about Indigenous land rights, issues and history growing up in the 80s and 90s. The media has been working to give Indigenous people a voice and a platform, and I am grateful to First Nation, Metis, and Inuit writers for educating me further through stories.
Cherie Dimaline addresses central issues head on in both The Marrow Thieves and Empire of Wild. In The Marrow Thieves it is colonialism, and in Empire of Wild it is land rights and displacement. They are nightmarish tales of these issues told from the inside. Nothing in me doubts that Dimaline harvested elements of these fantasies from the real nightmares of indigenous children living out either the injustices of land rights, or the horrors of residential schools and colonialism.
Dimaline uses the rogarou of Metis folklore as a metaphor for the deceit and betrayal of settlers when drawing up treaties and land agreements. Under the guise of a travelling religious ministry, Heiser uses scripture and preys on people’s altruism to convince them to permit mining, gas, and oil exploration on their land.
Further themes in this book include love – it is a love story after all – and family. It’s nice to read a book with characters of all ages and to be reminded of the multi-generational values and lifestyles of Metis families. And rogarous. Are rogarous a theme? In this book they are.
Empire of Wild is a great leisurely read for the dark days of winter. It grabs you, brings you under, makes you worry, but then lets you up for air and back to business as usual. It’s got just enough fantasy to send you to Google mid-chapter, truly unsure of what is real and what isn’t. It does have some rude and explicit content that may leave a bad taste in your mouth, but I think that’s the point — to make you a little uncomfortable. One of the best parts of this book is it’s setting right here in South Georgian Bay. You can’t help but to superimpose the village of Arcand and the roads that Joan takes into your hometown and shoreline. Grab it from your library, download it, or support your local bookstore and buy it — definitely worth reading!
Five local celebrities will advocate for five locally-authored books in Grey County Reads, a county-wide reading program involving seven Grey County libraries, including Grey Highlands, Hanover, Meaford, Owen Sound, Southgate, Town of Blue Mountains and West Grey.
Each celebrity will advocate for one Canadian book over five published installments, covering plot, character and theme analyses as well as introductory and summary arguments.
Readers are encouraged to follow along with the contest, consider each book and it’s celebrity endorsement. Pick up your own copy of one or more of these books and give us your opinion too. Books are available in limited quantities from your local public library or may be purchased from your favourite local bookstore.
Celebrity installments will be posted to SouthGrey.ca weekly through to February, 2020. Read any or all of the Grey County Reads books and/or read each of the book synopses and celebrity installments to play along. Then vote for your favourite book and community library. Voting begins in February.
After the start of voting, one book will be eliminated weekly until only one book remains. At the end of the contest, three people will be chosen at random, from amongst all who have voted, to win a total of $100 worth of gift certificates from Speaking Volumes Books and Audio. Also, based on votes counted, one community library will win $200 worth of books for their community!
Previous book winners:
2019: Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice, advocated by Steven Morel.
2018: Crow Lake by Mary Lawson, advocated by Sharon Sinclair.
Grey County Reads is supported through advertising by these local businesses:
The Bicycle Café
Chapman's Ice Cream
The Colour Jar
ColourPix Graphic Design Services
Grey County Public Libraries
Grey Roots Museum and Archives
John Tamming Law
Alex Ruff, MP Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound
Nature's Path Osteopathy and Alternative Healing
Owen Sound Transportation Company
The Restaurant - Leela's Villa Inn
Speaking Volumes Books and Audio
Bill Walker, MPP Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound
West Grey Chamber of Commerce