The Barren Grounds
The Barren Grounds
Morgan’s bedroom had a tall, narrow window that faced the street. Opposite the window, in the back corner just above the floor and beside the headboard, were two pipes protruding from the wall. They were cut down, capped off, and out of the way. She guessed that her bedroom used to be a bathroom, but in the two months she’d been here she had never bothered to ask, because the answer felt obvious.
Where else would you stick the oldest foster kid?
The room had thin carpeting that didn’t quite match the hallway carpet, which made Morgan think that it had been purchased at a discount carpet store. She had hung clothing, mostly hoodies, on a series of hooks at the back of her door, and taped a modest collection of posters to the walls. Finally, there was a floating shelf for her books. Fantasy books mostly. Old ones, because Morgan liked how books used to be written. She liked the worlds that authors imagined and how she could imagine herself in them. She would read books on her bed, facing the window. She’d lie on her stomach, kick her feet in the air, and get lost. Other times, she would just sneak to the attic. There, she could really be alone, and she could really escape.
Escaping was the plan this morning, just not into another world. Rather, Morgan intended to get out of the house and on her way to school solo. It would be a peaceful walk on her own for once, without Eli, the new foster kid. Over the last week, since he’d arrived at the house, it felt like she’d become a glorified babysitter, even though, at twelve, Eli was only a year younger than her.
In the dream from which she has just awakened, Morgan is walking through a blizzard, towards a distant light to which she can never get closer, despite trudging doggedly through heavy snow. Like the fantasy novels she enjoys, it’s another world, quite unlike the one in which she currently finds herself. Morgan is living in a comfortable upper middle-class Winnipeg neighbourhood with her current foster parents, James and Katie, a physician and a teacher, respectively. She’s hostile and defensive, and, after running from her seventh foster home, she frustrates James and Katie’s best efforts to connect with her. On the way to school, Eli asks Morgan why she’s always angry. His question surprises Morgan; up to now, he’s been very quiet, spending his spare time sketching on a drawing pad that’s almost as big as he is. It’s November, and a sudden gust of wind blows Eli’s drawing pad into the path of a bus. When the coast is clear, they rescue the ripped pages which are filled with images of “villages within beautiful landscapes, with animals walking on two legs through forests or along canyons or over mountains. Some were of lands in the middle of summer, some were colored with the warmth of autumn, others were made to face the harsh bite of winter. They looked like places straight from the fantasy novels Morgan loved.” (p. 14) For Eli, those images aren’t fantasy: they are drawn from his memories of stories told in his home community, and that drawing pad was special, a gift from his dad.
The ruin of those drawings bothers Eli, and Morgan knows it. She may be chronically angry, but she’s not insensitive, and she’s really quite intelligent. Although the school year is well- underway, Morgan keeps her distance from other students. However, a girl with a neighbouring locker breaks the ice, and, contrary to the “mean girl” tradition of so many young adult novels, Emily Houldsworth seems genuinely friendly, genuinely nice, and genuinely interested in the poem that Morgan has written as her assignment for their ELA class. When Morgan’s poem is returned by her teacher, there’s no grade on it. The poem is technically good, but it’s lacking “heart”, and, although Morgan just wants to get the assignment out of the way, Mrs. Edwards offers Morgan the challenge to write from her heart and submit that, instead.
Although Morgan typically spends lunchtime in self-chosen isolation, Emily takes a risk and joins her. Emily listens empathically while Morgan vents about the poetry re-write, and she gives Morgan the opportunity to “reset the karmic balance” (p. 28) of her life by doing something kind for Eli. Via Emily, Morgan obtains a replacement drawing pad and gives it to Eli so that, when they are home, he can draw in her secret hiding place, the off-limits, under-renovation, third-floor attic of James and Katie’s house. An “off-limits” attic exerts a tractor beam pull on any kid, and they head up, settling into Morgan’s special reading spot. Eli sits down, starts sketching, and suddenly, Morgan feels a faint gust of cool air. The cold air wafts at her twice more, and she demands an explanation. Eli replies, “My paper did it.” (p. 41) But just as Eli is about to sketch again, it’s dinner time.
Dinner that night is an event, featuring takeout food, the good china, silverware and crystal. “Katie announced what they would be eating like she was a server at a restaurant reciting the specials . . . Bison chili with seasonal beans, veggies, sweet corn, and shredded cheese, . . . last but not least traditional bannock.” (p. 46) The special dinner (from an Indigenous restaurant in downtown Winnipeg) is in celebration of Morgan’s two month “anniversary” of being with Katie and James. Their beautifully-wrapped gift of Manitobah Mukluks backfires terribly. Morgan explodes with anger at their attempts to “fix things” by offering a gift that is connected with her Indigenous culture, and she runs back to her room, planning to run away. Instead, she runs to the attic and, once there, manages to pry open a painted-over door which leads to an unfinished room. Eli joins her, and, this time, he’s the one who offers her reassurance and a gift, a drawing of an animal walking on its hind legs, away from a village. The animal’s eyes seems to look back at her, and, when Eli and Morgan staple the drawing to the wall, they find themselves transported through a portal, “a window . . . to the world that Eli had created, the world that Morgan had pictured that morning.” (p. 66) The animal looking out at them is a fisher, running straight for them. They rip the drawing from the wall, and the animal halts in midstride. Morgan is terrified: it’s one thing for this to happen in fantasy fiction, but this is frighteningly real. Eli, however, is reminded of the home from which he came, and he wants to return to the world of the portal. That night, he does, and when Morgan finds their secret hiding place stormed over with snow, she resolves to go after him. Donning a hoodie, warm socks, and yes, those Wool Tipi Manitobah Mukluks, she closes the portal and steps into the world of the drawing.
Morgan emerges from a hollow in a big tree, and, after securing the portal’s entrance, she heads through the deep snow of a blinding blizzard, seeking Eli. Falling asleep in a snow hole she has burrowed into, she awakes, seeing a fisher, Ochek, a tall animal, walking on its hind legs, dressed exactly as in the dream and Eli’s drawings. Ochek leads her to a longhouse in Misewa, the only village left in the North Country, and once there, Morgan again falls asleep, and dreams of another warm home, of a woman sitting on a chair, and a small sleeping child lulled by a song ending with the word “Kiskisitotaso.” Upon awakening, Morgan recounts the experience which is both intensely real and yet, dream-like. She tells it to Eli, and wonders about the word that the woman in the dream continues to repeat. Eli, fluent in Swampy Cree, tells her that it means something akin to “Don’t forget about who you are” or “Don’t forget yourself.” (p. 92) The dream is actually a deep, distant memory of Morgan’s mother. Morgan and Eli are now in a world in which time is fluid and has changed – although Morgan believes that she has been away from James and Katie’s home for about an hour, Eli tells her that two weeks have passed since Ochek has rescued both of them from the Barren Grounds.
Sitting by a fire, Ochek relates the story of a man who came through the same portal as did Morgan and Eli. It was the “Green Time, when birds and fish and four-legged animals were plentiful, and the land provided everything that we needed.” (p. 98) This blissful state of plenitude was insufficient for the man; he plundered the village’s resources, and finally, the Council of Misewa banished him. With his departure, a period of perpetual winter descended because the man captured the summer birds that provided warmth and helped to maintain the cycle of seasons. Napéw is the human responsible for this catastrophe. Now, only Napéw lives in the Green Time. Although he is also a human, Eli’s traditional beliefs and life skills have made him Ochek’s ally, and Morgan decides that she will stay with them and help Ochek to restore order and food to Misewa. It’s an opportunity “to do the things that she’d never got the chance to do, because her mother had given her away when Morgan was so young.” (p. 106)
Although Morgan knows that the journey to the place of the Green Time will be a challenge, she is quite engaged with being a real-life character in a fantasy story. Their days begin early, and, at night, Ochek tells the story of the hard times which befell Misewa and of how he came to be the sole surviving hunter and provider of food for the other animals living there. Ochek’s trap line is largely empty, but, at one trap, they spy a larger-than-usual squirrel, dressed like Ochek, in long pants and a long-sleeved, hooded jacket. The squirrel grabs the hare that was in the trap, but Ochek gives chase, and, after scampering into a tree for refuge, Arik (the squirrel) and Ochek engage in a verbal sparring match. Arik is spunky, sassy, and witty; those qualities, along with the knowledge of where the summer birds are being held captive, win her temporary reprieve. Yes, she’s stolen food from Ochek’s trap, but she’s able to convince him that she should be spared. The four meet with Misewa’s Council: a bear, Muskwa; an owl named Oho; and a turtle, Miskinahk. All three wear human attire, speak in both Cree and English (‘the other words”), and, as befits those who give counsel, they are elders. Ceremony – smudging and prayer – precedes discussion, both of whether or not to trust the two young humans, as well as whether or not the thieving squirrel should be forgiven. But, circumstances force new perspectives, and so, the Council gives its assent to the mission.
The four are on a quest, and, as in all good quest stories, the journey is arduous and often dangerous. Time and again, all four are tested, physically, mentally, and emotionally. If the trip through the portal has reminded the reader of the Narnia stories, the journey to the Green Time contains overtones of The Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings, and the final books of the Harry Potter series. The four cross an ice bridge, head into a range of mountains, are stalked by a truly evil wolf (by comparison, the wolves of Grimm’s fairy tales look positively tame). Once over the mountains, they reach the edge of the Green Time where the snow ends and grass, flowing water, and flowers flourish. “On one side of the line, it was like a cool day in spring. On the other side, a summer day in June.” (p. 186) It’s Edenic, except there are no animals, birds, or fish. Humans have killed them all. Ochek offers Morgan and Eli the chance to return to their home on the other side of the portal “where this place will live on in the stories that you tell one another.” (p. 191) But both Morgan and Eli feel that they belong to the land, that they have come too far with each other not to stay, to face more danger, and possibly, to triumph. In the concluding chapters of any quest story, there’s always a final, epic confrontation, and I’m not going to be the “spoiler” for this one. In the great mythic tradition, heroic choices are made, and Misewa is saved, but at a cost. Throughout the book, sections of each chapter are divided by a small graphic, the seven-star constellation which many of us know as “The Big Dipper”. It is also known as “Ochekatchakosuk”, a reminder of a sacrifice, and of “what could happen again if the land, and all it has to lend, is not respected.” (p. 212)
The Barren Grounds is an amazing book, pulling together diverse strands of ageless mythic traditions and contemporary stories of children who traverse portals in which other times and other worlds intersect. Robertson makes it all work! Ultimately, Morgan becomes the daughter her mother would have wanted her to be. She and Arik the squirrel are smart and resourceful females who can think on their feet (or paws). Ochek the fisher is sagely without being stodgy, a classic hero who exhibits courage, compassion, and keen intelligence while Eli, already comfortable with his traditions and Indigenous identity, is an artist, wise beyond his years. Although the quest story has a timeless quality, the dialogue is very contemporary. When Morgan wants Ochek to explain why he addresses Eli by his name, “Eli”, but calls her “Iskwésis”, (that is “Girl”, rather than “Morgan”), Ochek explains that he’s known Eli for a longer time. Her reply is “Seems a little sexist maybe, that’s all.” (p. 105)
Although aimed at middle school audience, I think that The Barren Grounds has a sophistication which also appeals to older readers. Both Eli and Morgan come to their foster home through circumstances never fully explained. James and Katie have no prior experience with raising children, and their attempts to connect with their always-angry foster daughter are both well-intentioned and cringe-worthy. On the morning when the story opens, Morgan’s breakfast plate features “scrambled eggs [that] resembled a mop of curly hair. The bacon strips were decidedly fat lips. Two orange slices were ears, and the final two were eyes.” (p. 5) Although James thought the Food Network presentation would cheer up Morgan, she is so unimpressed. Well-educated, solidly middle-class professionals living in River Heights, a very desirable older Winnipeg neighbourhood, they may be “saviors” of kids like Eli and Morgan, but they are trying their best with children who are coming from difficult situations, intending not “to make the same mistakes that have been made in the past.” (p. 52)
As for life in middle school, Robertson is completely spot on. Kids who don’t fit in middle and high school have a host of avoidance strategies; Morgan kills the 13 minutes prior to her first class by sticking “her head inside her locker like a middle-school ostrich. The more time she could spend there, the fewer students would be around when she crossed the hallway.” (p. 17) Lunchtime is always the worst for people like her, because “kids sat in the same place very noon hour, in easily definable groups . . . There was a long list of cliques. Some kids crossed over. Some kids did not.” (p. 25) Although Emily is brave enough to “cross over” and eat lunch with Morgan, the contrast in their lunch offerings perfectly delineates the junk food/healthy choice divide: Morgan tortures her food, stabbing at her plate of fries while Emily’s lunch is a neatly packaged and portioned lunch of chicken Caesar salad, an orange, and an ultra-healthy trail mix. Let’s not forget the teachers – Mrs. Edwards is an aspiring poet, and her desk accessories include 10 copies of her book, Lyrics to a Song. “Always overdressed for school”, that day’s costume is “shiny black sequined dress, as if ELA was a cocktail party” (p. 21), and she gets her grading done while her class finishes viewing her favourite film. The art teacher, Mrs. Bignell, seems more interested in completing her own painting project, although she is probably justified in kicking Morgan out of class for texting a message to Emily. I’m not criticizing: I know how middle school students see their teachers.
I’m a life-long Winnipegger, and, for me, there’s always something special about reading a story where you know the setting very well. Having spent half of my professional life teaching in the high school located in River Heights, I have a special appreciation for Robertson’s depiction of the area. Eli’s drawing pad is crushed by the bus that runs down Grosvenor Street which borders their middle school, and Morgan is a keen observer of neighbourhood details: “the absence of graffiti sprayed on walls, . . . basketball hoops attached to garages – even some Christmas decorations. . . . people walking dogs (all some form of doodle – Labra or Golden.)” (p. 10) When Eli and Morgan walk to school, the grass on a crisp morning in early November is exactly as Robertson describes it: “each blade . . . was coated in frost.” (p. 9) He also enjoys poking fun at some of the expectations readers might have of a story within the Indigenous tradition. When Morgan tries to sort out how long Eli has been in Misewa, she asks Ochek, “Shouldn’t you have said something like, ‘Eli has been here for many moons’, or something?”. Ochek replies, “That’s silly,” . . . “Who would talk like that? Many moons.” He scoffed. “The sun rises and falls and rises again. One day. Simple.” (p. 98) When Morgan expresses surprise at Arik’s size, because the squirrel’s “like, almost five feet tall!”, Arik replies, “Only on my driver’s license.” (pp.133-134) There’s plenty of deadpan humour in the story, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
The Barren Grounds is Book One of “The Misewa Saga”, and I’m looking forward to Book Two. This is a book that is rich in its characterization, evocative in its descriptions, and skillful in its weaving together of traditions of the past and life in the present. I’d recommend it for both male and female readers, for middle – and high school library collections, and as a “recommended read” in ELA classes, grades 6-10. It might be a challenge for a “reluctant reader”, but characters who are contemporaries with their audience can do a great deal to bridge the gap. Students who loved the Narnia, Tolkien, and Harry Potter series will enjoy this book, and it’s an excellent choice for units in comparative mythology. Like those other classics, the opening pages contain a map on which the reader can follow the journey. Last but not least, Morgan and Eli’s life circumstances offer a perspective on what it’s like to be a child of Indigenous background, living with foster parents who are finding their way, and trying to do the best that they can for these kids.
Joanne Peters, a retired teacher-librarian, lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Treaty 1 Territory and Homeland of the Métis People.