In one of my children’s literature classes last year, I taught David A. Robertson’s (Norway House Cree Nation) 2020 novel Barren Grounds. It was my first time teaching this novel and I picked it for several reasons. Firstly, in promotion for this novel at an interview at Calgary’s Word Fest festival, Robertson shared that he is interested in writing stories inspired by classic children’s literature through an Indigenous lens—he does this in Barren Grounds by adapting elements of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe with the traditional Cree Legends of the Fisher Constellation. Secondly, Robertson shared he also was searching for a book project to write about the foster care system in Canada, and to specifically demonstrate how it is another key colonial system that continues to disproportional affect Indigenous Peoples.
In the novel, the two protagonists are unrelated Cree children that have passed through several settler foster homes which has cultivated a sense of disconnection from their Cree culture and themselves. In entering a portal into the Barren Grounds, much like the war-time foster children in The Chronicles of Narnia, the protagonists are quickly submerged into a Cree community of anthropomorphized animals. A settler has stolen the summer birds so that he may live in the summer forever, and this has trapped the Cree community in a perpetual winter and brought them to the brink of death. Lead by the Fisher, the protagonists free the summer birds and return the environment to its natural cycle. Having been powerless in the foster care system, the protagonists are empowered and given agency in their relationship with the Fisher and animal-Cree community.
This novel was many of the students’ favourite text of the semester—this was demonstrated by a poll taken at the end of the semester and several students choosing to write their final research papers on it. In asking students why this was their pick, several noted Robertson’s humour alongside his “not holding back punches” as essential. This novel afforded meaningful discussions that went far beyond the structures of a portal story (foundational in children’s literature) to discussions around how foster care is a continuation of residential schools, the failing roles of even the “well-meaning” settler foster parents, alternatives to foster care the novel may present, and the ways in which the Fisher constellation myth communicates ways of knowing and being in the world that differ from Eurocentric narratives—especially in comparison to the novel’s other touchstone, Narnia.
I cannot recommend this novel enough!