I don’t ask for much in life, but I do ask for all the portal fantasies to make their way to me. It’s a love that stems from my younger days watching and reading about Narnia and wanting so desperately just to go somewhere else. I think that desire is what really got me into reading and engaging in that whole escapism complex.
But enough about me, I’m here today to scream about this incredible book. It promised me delight and gave me much delight! So Happy Book Birthday to The Barren Grounds by David A. Robertson!
*Many thanks to PRHC for the review copy!*
The Barren Grounds by David A. Robertson
Pub Date: Sept 8th, 2020
Publisher: Puffin Canada
Narnia meets traditional Indigenous stories of the sky and constellations in an epic middle grade fantasy series from award-winning author David Robertson.
Morgan and Eli, two Indigenous children forced away from their families and communities, are brought together in a foster home in Winnipeg, Manitoba. They each feel disconnected, from their culture and each other, and struggle to fit in at school and at their new home — until they find a secret place, walled off in an unfinished attic bedroom. A portal opens to another reality, Askí, bringing them onto frozen, barren grounds, where they meet Ochek (Fisher). The only hunter supporting his starving community, Misewa, Ochek welcomes the human children, teaching them traditional ways to survive. But as the need for food becomes desperate, they embark on a dangerous mission. Accompanied by Arik, a sassy Squirrel they catch stealing from the trapline, they try to save Misewa before the icy grip of winter freezes everything — including them.
This book has a fantastic cast of characters that never allows for a dull moment.
Morgan was such a delight. She was fierce and soft. She was sassy and sweet. She loved reading fantasy novels and imagining up wild scenarios! I could tell she engaged very well in the arts of sarcasm and she knew how to crack a joke which I appreciated very much. She also had quite a temper. She struggled with handling her anger that often made her “unlikable”. (I like how Robertson used the imagery of fire to illustrate the pain and fury coursing through her.) Nevertheless, Morgan’s journey to self-discovery and identity was an emotional one that takes her across lands to find answers. She was an incredible character who saw much growth!
Eli was the purest child! So soft! I loved how he complemented Morgan’s spikier personality. He was a more quiet kid to begin with, but I loved watching his journey in grow more brave and heroic. His talent for drawing and his pull of adventure into lands unknown makes him the perfect partner for Morgan. His levels of compassion were *clutches heart* so pure and I loved how he always fought for what was right!
Other characters…Ochek and Arik were the best companions to have on this adventure! From Ochek’s serious, noble and humble heart to Arik’s snarky and sneaky charm, these two were absolutely delightful. They were also just as dynamic as our MCs. I enjoyed that they grappled with their own flaws in their efforts to save themselves and the land they cherish.
The writing was wonderfully whimsical in a not too flowery way. As Morgan mentions in this book there is such a thing as “fantasy talk” in which the characters use grand words that bring out an other-worldliness of a fantasy land. Well this book does a great job of balancing the contemporary talk and the fantasy talk. From the humour and snark to the whimsy and enchantment, this book used that traditional grandeur of fantasy talk but made it way more accessible to readers so we don’t spend half a page trying to figure out one metaphor. It was easy to follow and yet it wrapped you up in its magic too!
This story takes us to lots of places, from the halls of a Winnipeg school to an in-construction attic to a snowy plain. However, the journey across landscapes of Aski is the most exciting part. I absolutely loved how Robertson made us travel so far without needing to do so much. (Vague much, Rendz?) I don’t want to spoil, but I loved the portal in this book. It was simple and yet essential to the plot. It reminded me of my own childhood tactics to finding other magical lands!
The Misewa community was beautifully crafted! The Cree language and traditions were very important aspects to this world and I loved that Morgan (and the reader) learned new words and phrases and stories along with her. I loved that we delved into the history of Misewa and the two-legged animals that walked and talked. It is a community that has been doomed by humans, but who will need two human children to help find the key to their salvation.
The story had a strong message about importance of the relationship between people, animals and the land. It emphasized the need for balance and warned of the dangers that come from taking too much and being greedy. The antagonist is one we often find throughout history and even today. (I actually gave a snort-laugh when I read it) Themes of environmentalism and the dangers of consumerism were beautifully woven into this tale of wonder that has two kids, a fisher and a squirrel journeying across dangerous terrains to save Misewa.
This book also puts forwards the truths of the foster care system in Canada that has an over-representation of Indigenous children. It shows the deep emotional effects it has on children who are removed from their people at such young ages and put into situations that leave them questioning and wondering about who they are. Especially for kids like Morgan, who has been fostered since she was a toddler, with little memory of her family from before. No matter the intentions of the foster family, this book puts into light the experiences of the child and the feelings of constant displacement. I love that in Misewa they find another place of care, one in which Eli and Morgan find themselves feeling more at home than ever before.
Maybe I cried a little bit? There is just a very emotional scene in this book. You might think middle grade is all fun and smiles and adventure, but there is some bittersweetness too. It’s not tragic, it just pulls very hard on the heart-strings. And I would just like to say that book design is there for a reason and wow I was delighted and hurt at the same time!
And finally, I caught 2 Narnia references. TWO! I was living!
Overall, I really enjoyed this book! It is a story about family and finding home in people who may not be blood, but with whom you share ties with. It’s a story about adventure and valuing yourself. It’s about sticking up for yourself and knowing how to practice compassion. It warmed my heart even though it brought the chilly vibes! I think it is a perfect fall or winter read if you really want to be immersed in the atmosphere and feel that bite of the wind!
Rating: 5 / 5 Stars
Recommend?: Absolutely! For all the portal fantasy lovers!
Let me know what you think! Are you a fan of portal fantasy? Are you going to pick up this book? What world would you wish to travel to?
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