CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 16 . . . . December 22, 2017
Under a dazzling prairie sky, a young woman stands on a large, flat rock, surveying the rolling hills of the Qu'Appelle Valley, North-West Territory (now known as the province of Saskatchewan). The year is 1814, but she is dressed in 21st century teen-wear: hoodie, denim jacket, baggy jeans. Suddenly, the air fills with a deafening rumble, and a massive herd of bison pounds towards her. They are terrifying, but shortly, the roar of their hooves is replaced by the report of rifles as the men of a nearby Métis hunting camp shoot the bison, soon to be stripped of their hides and flesh. Then, with the words, "Echo? … The bell just rang. It's time to go to your next class" (p. 9), Echo Desjardins is roused from her day-dream, the first of several time-travel episodes she will experience in Pemmican Wars, a graphic novel authored by Katherena Vermette, illustrated by Scott B. Henderson and coloured by Donovan Yaciuk. She's sitting in a Canadian history class on the first day of high school. It's an intimidating experience; this large urban school has a diverse student body, but the cool (and mean) girls leaving the room smirk and stare at her, and she walks the halls with her head down, earbuds firmly in place, alone and isolated. English class, lunch-time (eaten from a brown bag in a hallway corner), Biology class – the day goes by and soon, it's 3:35 pm, school dismissal time. She boards Winnipeg Transit bus #20 and rides home, listening to the playlist on her smartphone.
Home is a small but well-kept building in an older neighbourhood. As Echo walks through the door, she's asked "How was your first day?" (p. 14) It's not clear with whom she's living: her mom, an aunt, a foster parent, a grandmother? In response, Echo replies, "Fine" (p. 14), but it's obvious that it hasn't been. She walks up to her room in the attic, selects a song from her playlist, pulls a blanket over her head and falls asleep. The next day of school is like the first; Echo sits slumped in her desk in her English class, and, after eating lunch alone on a bench in the hall, she heads for a place known to offer refuge and respite, the school's library. Browsing the graphic novel collection, she finds one titled The Rebel, and when she pages through it, for the first time, she appears animated and engaged. After yet another boring class, she returns to the library and signs out the book. At home, when she says that today was "Fine", there's a hint of a smile as she raids the fridge and goes upstairs to read the book.
She falls asleep, travelling back in time to the nineteenth century, once again finding herself on the edges of a Métis hunting camp near the Souris River. A Métis girl named Marie (oblivious to Echo's ripped jeans and logoed t-shirt) introduces herself to Echo, who asks, "This where you live? In tipis?" (p. 23). In fact, the camp is temporary habitation; the families living there will pack up and leave as soon as the preparation of pemmican is complete. Marie explains pemmican's importance to Echo: not only is it a food source, but it is also used to trade for various other goods needed to get through the winter. Echo joins into the life of the camp, preparing pemmican, listening to the fiddle music that is played in the evening around the campfires, stargazing with her friend Marie. Unlike life at school, Echo experiences a sense of connection and belonging, but when she wakes up, she's back in the present. Interestingly, the next day's history class offers an account of the start of the Pemmican Wars, a series of conflicts involving settlers, Indigenous Peoples, and the rivalrous Hudson's Bay and Northwest Companies. The Pemmican Wars lasted for years, culminating in the 1816 battle at the Grenouillère (the Frog Plain), now known as Seven Oaks, an area in north Winnipeg. As her history teacher recounts details of the Battle of Seven Oaks, and Echo reads about it in her history text, she is once again transported back to the nineteenth century. This time, she witnesses the confrontation between a group of Métis and members of the Northwest Company, led by Cuthbert Grant, and the governor of the Hudson's Bay Company, Robert Semple and his supporters. Shots are fired, with fatalities on both sides, and as Echo watches the bodies of Grant's party being carried away, she is overwhelmed with sadness.
Seeing Echo's tears, her history teacher tells her "I know this is hard material, but these are your people. The Métis have many things to be proud of." Although Echo responds that she doesn't know anything about being Métis, her teacher assures her that she's "not any less Métis just because [she] doesn't know [her] history." (p. 37) Once back from school, Echo retreats to her room, and in her dreams, travels through time again, returning to Marie's family who are mourning the loss of an uncle in the battle and who are facing the prospect of more fighting between the settlers and the Métis. The next day, Echo pays a visit to her mom, who lives in some sort of housing complex, or perhaps an institution of some sort. It's not clear why they live apart, but something has happened to cause the separation. When her mother asks how school is going, Echo replies that "we're learning about Métis history", (42) and begins a conversation about their heritage. Echo's mother tells her that her own father (Echo's grandfather) was proud to be Métis, but when asked if she is proud to be Métis, her mom replies, "Yeah, yes … I don't really know much about it." (p. 43) There's heavy silence for a while, and then, in the final frame of the novel, Echo starts to re-tell the story of the Battle of Seven Oaks. "Well, it was horrible. It was all about the Northwest Company and the Hudson's Bay Company, and Métis used to make this stuff called pemmican …" (p. 44). With that statement, the book ends, with the promise that the story is "to be continued …" (p. 44).
Pemmican Wars is a short but ambitious graphic novel. Katherena Vermette's narrative runs on two levels: one is the story of a 13-year-old facing a number of life challenges (isolation within her school environment, a fractured relationship with her mother, and a search for identification with her Métis heritage), and the other being an historical account of decades of conflict between the Métis and the commercial interests and settlers of the area which became the Red River Colony. Compared to many graphic novels I have read, Pemmican Wars is not text-intensive; Echo is often monosyllabic in her responses, and the only teacher with dialogue is her history teacher. However, Henderson's drawings and Yaciuk's colourations combine powerfully in graphics which carry both narratives. The scenes of the buffalo hunt, life in the hunting camp, and the confrontation at Seven Oaks are vibrantly-coloured, conveying the intensity of the action, events, and family life of the Métis. In contrast, Echo's school is a portrait of institutional drabness, as are the bus she rides each day, the interior of her home, and the building in which her mother lives. Echo is the most vividly drawn and coloured character in those scenes, highlighting her sense of being isolation. And although she doesn't say much, Echo seems older than 13.
The history of the Pemmican Wars is often given short shrift in Canadian History classes. By recounting it through the perspectives of the Métis, who were profoundly affected by the destruction of the buffalo hunt and the pemmican trade, Vermette offers new insights into pemmican's integral role in Métis culture. By showing the intensity of Echo's response to that story and her need to learn more about her Métis heritage, Vermette shows the importance of knowing the history of one's people, especially if it has been dismissed. Important historical context is provided by a "Timeline of the Pemmican Wars", a listing of dates, corresponding events, and the people who played a significant role in that conflict. The lyrics, in both French and English, of "La Chanson de la Grenouillère", tells a story of Métis courage at the battle at Seven Oaks, in a song written by Pierre Falcon, a Métis poet and songwriter. And, there's also a recipe for pemmican which can be prepared in a food processor!
Pemmican Wars is the first volume in a series entitled "A Girl Called Echo", and typically, the first work in a series offers a strong "hook". Despite the book's many strengths, both in its characterization of a Métis teen who is feeling alienated in her current world, and in its historical content, the novel's "to be continued" ending didn't work for me. Echo's conversation with her mom seemed to just end, abruptly, without a sense of continuity to another story that will follow. Echo wants to find out more about her Métis heritage, but there's also much about Echo's personal history that has been left untold, such as why she and her mother are living apart. Perhaps subsequent works in the series will fill in this backstory while continuing Echo's search for her Métis identity.
Pemmican Wars is intended for readers aged 14-18, an age group which usually studies Canadian History during their high school years, and this graphic novel offers a very accessible presentation of the conflict between the Métis and settlers. As a story with a female protagonist, will the book be more appealing to female readers? Hard to say – Echo is not a "girly" kind of girl, and her clothing choices are definitely not feminine. However, feelings of alienation, of loneliness, of not belonging, either at home or at school, are experienced by both genders and those teens – male or female - who eat their lunch alone and wander the halls without friends will understand Echo's plight Although I think that Pemmican Wars is a book which will find its greatest readership amongst students with Métis or Indigenous heritage, those who are the descendants of settlers will be offered a new perspective with this book.
Joanne Peters, a retired teacher-librarian, lives in Winnipeg, MB, Treaty 1 Territory.