Book: “Empire of Wild” by Cherie Dimaline
Publishing Info: William Morrow, July 2020
Where Did I Get This Book: I own it.
Book Description: A bold and brilliant new indigenous voice in contemporary literature makes her American debut with this kinetic, imaginative, and sensuous fable inspired by the traditional Canadian Métis legend of the Rogarou—a werewolf-like creature that haunts the roads and woods of native people’s communities.
Joan has been searching for her missing husband, Victor, for nearly a year—ever since that terrible night they’d had their first serious argument hours before he mysteriously vanished. Her Métis family has lived in their tightly knit rural community for generations, but no one keeps the old ways . . . until they have to. That moment has arrived for Joan.
One morning, grieving and severely hungover, Joan hears a shocking sound coming from inside a revival tent in a gritty Walmart parking lot. It is the unmistakable voice of Victor. Drawn inside, she sees him. He has the same face, the same eyes, the same hands, though his hair is much shorter and he’s wearing a suit. But he doesn’t seem to recognize Joan at all. He insists his name is Eugene Wolff, and that he is a reverend whose mission is to spread the word of Jesus and grow His flock. Yet Joan suspects there is something dark and terrifying within this charismatic preacher who professes to be a man of God . . . something old and very dangerous.
Joan turns to Ajean, an elderly foul-mouthed card shark who is one of the few among her community steeped in the traditions of her people and knowledgeable about their ancient enemies. With the help of the old Métis and her peculiar Johnny-Cash-loving, twelve-year-old nephew Zeus, Joan must find a way to uncover the truth and remind Reverend Wolff who he really is . . . if he really is. Her life, and those of everyone she loves, depends upon it.
Review: I missed Cherie Demaline’s YA dystopia novel “The Marrow Thieves” when it first came out, and still haven’t really rectified that. Honestly, it’s on my list! But it took me a couple moments to realize and make the connection that “Empire of Wild”, a book I ordered during the height of the 2020 timeline of the pandemic and then let sit on my shelf for far too long, was by the same author. Having let another book of hers miss me again, I decided that it was time to fix at least part of my problem. “Empire of Wild” caught my eye because of the phrase ‘werewolf-like creature’ in the description. Feeling like I need to read more werewolf fiction, I went in excited to see what that could mean. But let me tell you, this isn’t your average werewolf story. The folklore, mythology, and symbolism go to more interesting and unique places than that.
The plot is both deep and yet very simple. Joan is a Métis woman who left her small, fractured town in Canada, and came back with a husband named Victor. He was the love of her life, but one night after a fight he left and disappeared. Joan has been mourning the loss for almost a year, and while everyone around her thinks he’s left her for another woman, she is convinced she can find him. So when she stumbles upon Victor one day, but he’s a Reverend of a Tent Revival group and says his name is Reverend Wolff and has no clue who she is, things get interesting. And then her grandmother, one of the elders in the town where there are few left, is killed by a wild dog. Or perhaps a wolf. What you think you’re going to read is not what you’re going to read. Dimaline finds layers of loss, grief, generational trauma, and love within this story, and you so desperately want Joan to find Victor, and when she does, but doesn’t, you are invested in how it’s going to turn out for her. It’s mostly following Joan on her journey, though we do get chapters interspersed in of others. The most significant are the chapters from Victor’s POV, as we slowly find out what happened to him in the woods the night he disappeared from her life, and it’s written in such eerie, surreal exposition that it slowly builds up the dread. There are also some chapters that follow various antagonistic forces, which never really get explored too much, but that’s okay. Because this is Joan and Victor’s story.
It’s also the story of a rogarou, a folk tale that has been seen in numerous cultures and can be compared to werewolf stories. A rogarou in the Métis lens in this story is a wolf like creature that haunts roads, searching for people to devour. From the get go we see that there is, indeed, some kind of threat like this, as Joan’s grandmother, Mere, is killed by some kind of canine early in the story. She also happened to be one of the few people who knew how to deal with rogarou. Joan eventually turns to another elder named Ajean for help, and Dimaline uses this opportunity to show aspects of the folklore and how it relates specifically to the Métis people. I really liked how this was woven into the story, and thought that it fit well.
But the most striking theme at the very heart of “Empire of Wild” is the insidiousness of colonialism, and the violence it has committed (and continues to commit) against Indigenous people. The fight between Joan and Victor that sent him into the unknown was based on him wanting to sell the land that she inherited from her father, as developers are constantly looking to buy Métis land, which has led to a fracturing of an already fractured community. The tent revival group that Joan finds Reverend Wolff leading has an explicit motivation to convert Indigenous people to Evangelical Christianity, and therein take more of their culture from them as well as taking them away from the devotion they have to their land (and therein allowing developers to take it and profit from it). The loss of culture and family is seen in many ways, from the land loss to the shrinking number of elders, to Joan’s nephew Zeus who is slowly losing his connection to his identity and turning his back on traditions as the story goes on. Even the Métis version of the rogarou myth has angles about people being devoured not just in body but also in spirit. If Victor has, indeed, been the victim of a rogarou, the focus is more on the mind and identity that has been erased as it takes on his body. All of this comes together in ways that directly challenge imperialist and colonialist motivations, and how Indigenous pain is profited upon over and over again. I loved this searing commentary.
“Empire of Wild” is unique and suspenseful, and filled with a lot of heart and ardor. If you want something a little different from your average werewolf story, this is where you should look for it.
Rating 8: A truly unique dark fantasy tale about love, loss, the violence of colonialism, and wolves, “Empire of Wild” is a haunting read.
“Empire of Wild” is included on the Goodreads lists “Anticipated Literary Reads For Readers of Color 2020”.