CM . . .
. Volume XXIV Number 12. . . November 24, 2017
Cole’s grandmother and his aunt took him away from Wounded Sky First Nation and resettled in Winnipeg after a tragedy involving many of his school friends as well as his parents. Ten years later, the 17-year-old is summoned back, only to face more problems. Young people are being murdered, others in the community are suffering from a mysterious flu-like illness, and, because of his past actions, Cole is not entirely welcome.
David A. Robertson is a Norway House Cree Nation band member and gives his young adult audience a first-hand look at contemporary indigenous culture. Cole is drawn back to his original home and back to a culture which he had lost while living in the city. Robertson paints a clear and detailed picture of the Wounded Sky First Nation and what life is like for those who live there. In this coming-of-age novel, Cole is forced to face his past and how it affected those around him. He must choose whether to stay and deal with what is happening or simply turn his back on Wounded Sky and return to Winnipeg. Much of the beginning of the novel focuses on what happened 10 years ago and why it drove Cole’s grandmother and aunt to take him away in an effort to protect him. This naturally leads to questions about whether or not he should return and what will happen as a result. The author’s depiction of Cole and his emotions gives readers insight into the psychology of guilt and how it might be resolved.
Other characters, both friends and enemies of Cole, add depth and interest. Added to the cast are supernatural characters. Jayne is a ghost who takes Cole back to the days of his childhood in Wounded Sky and who helps him and others throughout the story. Choch is a spirit who is sometimes human and sometimes coyote. He provides some comic relief during the tension of the novel as well as being the force which pushes Cole into decisions and actions.
The novel gets off to a slow beginning, the backstory is often confusing, and there are gaps in the plot. The second half of the book moves ahead more forcefully and for this reason will likely have more appeal for a young adult audience. Robertson may have intentionally left gaps and unanswered questions since Strangers is intended as the first volume of a series of novels.
Strangers is an apt title for the novel on many levels. The story includes characters like a ghost and spirit which are strange and unusual. When Cole returns to Wounded Sky, he feels like an outsider and is treated as a stranger even by those who knew him well at one time. He seems to be involved in murder as well as feats of strength and speed which make him different from everyone else. And, lastly, there is the suggestion that, although Winnipeg and Wounded Sky might be close in a geographical sense, they are strangers to one another in many other ways. Indigenous and non-indigenous people continue to be strangers despite recent attempts at changing this situation.
Strangers has some shortcomings, but it also has elements which will appeal to many young adult readers. Indigenous and non-indigenous readers will enjoy the setting of Wounded Sky, the character of Cole and the other indigenous characters in the book. There are murders and mysteries which are never completely solved, a hint of romance which is never entirely fulfilled, and the supernatural plays a large role in the plot. Something for everyone – and many readers will anticipate the next book in the series.
Ann Ketcheson, a retired teacher-librarian and high school teacher of English and French, lives in Ottawa, ON.
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