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'Empire Of Wild' Tells A Small Story — But Not A Slight One

William Morrow

I like a small book. I trust a small book. I appreciate a small book for all the things it doesn't do, for all the stories it does not tell.

Big books? They're dangerous in their excess. Bloated (often) with words they do not need and larded (often) with detail that no one asked for. You can slip into a big book and lose your way too easily. But a small book is intimate. Close. Every word it says matters. The writer of a small book knows that every page has to count.

Cherie Dimaline wrote a small book called Empire Of Wild. It isn't small in pages (320, give or take) or in words (it has the normal amount), but it is tiny in consequence. In the scope and reach of the story it tells.

It is about Joan, who has lost her husband. And who means to get him back. That's all. There are no worlds to be saved, no history to be altered. Joan's actions, and the reverberations of those actions, are felt only close by. Her family, her community, the barrooms and living rooms and Walmart parking lots of the small towns around Georgian Bay, Ontario are the only places where her footsteps are felt. And that's enough. That's more than enough.

Joan is Métis, part of the Indigenous community of First Nations. She grew up in the small town of Arcand, left home young looking for fun and adventure and a life filled with more than just boloney sandwiches and local boys, then came back one day with a husband in tow.

Victor was the love of Joan's life. The one who stuck — who worked hard to charm her mother and grandmother, who drank and fought with her brothers in barroom brawls. And Dimaline writes out their love story in thick, physical prose, with a smothering closeness that is so warm, charged and profoundly personal that it is almost claustrophobic.

One day, they have a fight over land. Joan's land, inherited from her father. Victor wants to sell it to developers who have been snatching up native properties, for enough money to start their lives over somewhere else; Joan won't even consider it.

So Victor leaves. But he leaves so that he won't get angry in front of Joan. So he doesn't say something he'll regret later. He leaves to go check his traps, to cool off, but then doesn't come back. He's just...gone.

The whole town spends days searching for him. Then the whole town stops. Everyone except Joan, who just can't. For 11 months, she searches — broken by Victor's absence, not eating, not sleeping, unable to move on.

And that's where Empire Of Wild begins, dropping us right in the middle of Joan's messy, desperate, exhausted grief. The befores and afters of that night 11 months ago all come in sideways — as flashbacks, memories, conversations over tea or beers or family suppers. Dimaline begins at a point of suspension — Joan hung up by her refusal to accept that Victor can just be gone — and slow-walks us through the blur of absence.

But then two things happen: First, Joan's grandmother is killed. By some dogs, the community thinks. Or a wolf.

Second, a tent revival comes to the area, and Joan sees Victor (or a man she believes to be Victor) leading the congregation. She confronts him, calls him by his name, but he doesn't recognize her. He is, he insists, the Reverend Eugene Wolff and he has never seen Joan before in his life. She is warned off by the man who operates the Ministry of New Redemption, Thomas Heiser (a "resource development specialist" who uses the tent revivals as a way to convince the First Nations communities to give up their land and their medicine to mines and pipelines by promising them Jesus and eternal life instead). Heiser is a slick hand in his fancy suits and silk ties. A personification of colonial interest and evil who tells Joan that this man, this Reverend, is his. And certainly not Victor.

Victor, he says, is dead. And Joan should go away and never, ever come back.

Down in its bones, Empire Of Wild is a monster story. Mythic but not epic, swimming in Indigenous medicine, not magic. Calling it urban fantasy gives it a gloss it doesn't possess. Magical realism implies something absurdist, asynchronous, and doesn't speak to the way that the medicine of the Métis elders is woven into every breath and line.

'Empire Of Wild' is a small book. But it is not a slight book. It is close, tight, stark, beautiful — rich where richness is warranted, but spare where want and sorrow have sharpened every word.

Here, Dimaline uses the legend of the rogarou to square her narrative architecture — to give weight and nightmares to Joan's private hurt. The rogarou is the bogeyman that scares children home before it gets too dark outside. It makes Métis girls walk in pairs. It keeps men from doing wrong by women, each other or the community. The rogarou is part man, part dog. Intelligent. Vicious. And it can dance. It only comes for you if you deserve it — when you've done the kind of wrong that requires a vengeance. Or sometimes, if you're just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And Joan? She believes in the rogarou because she's seen one before. She knows the smell of one when it's close — and with a cell phone, some salt bone, her aunt Ajean's medicine and her chubby, mopey nephew Zeus by her side, she knows that she's going to have to meet one, fight one, slay one to bring Victor back home.

Empire Of Wild is a small book. But it is not a slight book. It is tight, stark, visceral, beautiful — rich where richness is warranted, but spare where want and sorrow have sharpened every word. And through multiple narrators (including free-floating, disjointed chapters from Victor which haunt every major angle of the plot), disconnected timelines, the strange geographies of memory and storytelling, Dimaline has crafted something both current and timeless, mythic but personal. It is the story of Joan and her love. Joan and her loss. Joan and her family. Joan and her monster.

And nothing more (or less) than that.

Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.