The trade begins with a story. I, Jibayaabooz, walked the path home, And now show the dead the way. But I still have enemies who dwell in the dark waters. Only the Paayehnsag, with their stone canoes that cut through the water, can bring me vengeance. And put an end to the spirits that pulled me under.
In this graphic novel that mixes Anishinaabe mythology and Alice in Wonderland fantasy, Aimée is a non-binary middle-schooler on a class trip with the Indigenous Students Association to see petroglyphs and offer gifts to the water spirits known as Paayehnsag.Trying to distract themselves from their classmates’ bullying with a game on their phone, they are separated from the group and enter a dream world where they are met by a trickster rabbit named Jibayaabooz who enlists their help to fight evil spirits with the help of the Paayehnsag who will only help children. On their journey to find the spirits, they meet an Auntie who invites them to tea and who complains about a Queen trying to take away her land. Aimée is then taken prisoner by the Queen who forces them and their animal friends to fight her robots and then sentences them all to death. Escaping from the Queen, Aimée finally finds the Paayehnsag and defeats the evil spirits. Jibayaabooz shows them the way back to reality, and they are reunited with their class.
With its timely themes of Indigenous land rights and gender identity, there is no doubt that this book is one that will find its audience and its market. The weaving of land claims and history into the story is subtle, using the device of the ridiculously imperious Queen to mock colonial laws and norms. So, too, is Aimée’s experience of bullying, framing the story in a subplot that ends with their discovery of sympathetic classmates as they rejoin real life at the end. However, the action and the plot that surrounds it are less than satisfying. The role of the two rabbits—the trickster and his brother—is very unclear as is the method by which Aimée is able to defeat the Queen and the evil spirits. The intrigue of the pursuit of spirits often seems to lose meaning, with the goals and strategies often obscured. While Aimée’s experience of bullying and their yearning for the supportive arms of their mother are both vivid, their experience of gender identity and expression are not given sufficient background or visual meaning to really have an effect.
As a graphic novel, the focus is on the full-colour illustrations. These do a good job of depicting Aimée’s feelings, and in particular the mocking expressions on the faces of the rabbits, but, on occasion, they come across as too cartoon-like, such as with the large eyes on people like the Auntie. As a fantasy, there are elements in the illustrations that will intrigue and fascinate, from the hearts on the faces of the Queen’s robots, to the walking chairs at the tea party, to the Queen’s ridiculously high judge’s perch at the trial. But, like with the overall plot, there is a meandering quality to the visuals that does not seem to do the deep meaning of the myths and the land situation justice. Nonetheless, Rabbit Chase is an important contribution to the understanding of contemporary Indigenous life and gender identity issues.
Todd Kyle is the CEO of the Brampton Library.