Cherie Dimaline is a writer of indigenous stories. Her newest novel, Empire of Wild, focuses on a community of displaced Métis descendants who ended up in Arcand, Canada, determined to make a living. Joan and her tight-knit (though sometimes-smothering) family survive as best they can with a construction business, building on land slowly being eaten away by corporate-driven mines. Dimaline’s story begins with Joan struggling to keep herself together during the endless search for her husband.
Victor disappeared nearly a year ago, leaving Joan confused and obsessed with finding him. Despite the arguments of her family, Joan believes it’s something more sinister than infidelity. It turns out she was right. Dimaline’s narrator weaves in folklore, history, and traditional practices of the Métis indigenous people; most notably the legend of the rogarou. This werewolf-like creature hunts along the roadways, lurking in the dark woods devouring the minds and bodies of those it captures. When Joan, in her never-ending search for Victor, comes across her husband at an outdoor religious revival, he doesn’t seem to recognize her. Joan is unable to convince this version of Victor of his true identity before passing out from dehydration and high anxiety from having found the love of her life again only to have him shun her.
Ajean, a friend, elder, and keeper of old stories believes Joan, and shares the knowledge that could lead Joan back to her husband and defeat Thomas Heiser, the conman who Joan believes is the rogarou that has brainwashed her husband. Ajean gives Joan a chance to break through whatever spell is holding her Victor captive. She catches glimpses of him in her attempts, but not before she realizes just how gravely she underestimated the strength of such evil, as well as the power of the sacred land from whence she came.
Dimaline trusts her readers. Her characters reiterate the importance of heritage, culture, and representation to their careless and dismissive youth, but she uses language that compels everyone to take heed—native or not; old or young. The mix of emotions from seeing Victor after nearly a year of searching is captured with an eloquent crudeness that is as memorable as a father’s abandonment or a grandmother’s scent: “Being this close to him made her whole body react. Lust elbowed rage out of the way, then slipped on the slick cold of relief.”
Some of the most powerful writing comes from the chapters that are from Victor’s point of view. He exists in a kind of “sunken place” throughout much of the text and has his own demon to face as he seeks the flickering memories of himself and his life with Joan:
“A face came to him, soft with laugh lines and with a ridge of small, brown beauty marks along her jaw like a constellation. Straight teeth, dark eyes, dark hair. Her name…it was almost there, it was rolling slow up his throat. He felt hunger for the first time in memory. He reached both hands out in the dark. And then the wind blew warm, pushing into him, making it hard to breathe. He opened his mouth and it worked its way past his teeth. It was like his throat was full of someone else’s breath. The image of the woman’s face with astronomy on her skin was being pulled out of him. He was losing her.“
There is no wavering in the voice of the narrator. They have been here before and survived the chase of the rogarou, trapping him in a circle of salt bone dust to keep him at bay. The narrator has told a story like this before to warn young people who take their heritage for granted and do not believe the legend of the rogarou that they could go missing or, worse yet, “wake up with blood in your teeth, not knowing and no way to know what you’ve done.” The narrator and characters like Ajean and Joan’s grandmother Angelique will never give up on teaching the old ways. Dimaline has written this narrator as if she is moving from room to room, traveling through the pages: leaving the dinner table with Joan and her mother, riding shotgun on the way home from the hospital after finding Victor, and even standing alongside Joan on the final battleground to win her husband back for good. Yes, she has seen and survived it all and when it comes right down to it, Dimaline makes it clear that when it comes to standing up for her people, she is wildly excited about the choreography of a damn good fight.