December 30, 2017

Strangers: The Reckoner, Book One

Written by David A. Robertson
HighWater Press
216 pp.
Ages 14+
October 2017

David A. Robertson, author of the Governor-General's literary awarded illustrated children's book When We Were Young (illustrated by Julie Flett, HighWater Press, 2016), returns his writing to young adults with Strangers, the first book in a new supernatural thriller series called The Reckoner. Still honouring his Cree roots with a story installed in the fictionalized Cree community of Wounded Sky, David A. Robertson shows us life on a remote Manitoba reserve where a past tragedy and current illness and murder have its inhabitants reeling in suspicion and anger.  And it doesn't help that that trickster Coyote is playing a leading role.

Seventeen-year-old Cole Harper has been living in Winnipeg since his Aunt Joan and grandmother moved him there to forget "everything he'd lost in the tragedy and his role in it" (pg. 13) ten years earlier.  Now his friend Ashley Ross is summoning Cole back to Wounded Sky with cryptic messages about needing to come home.   But Cole's return is far from welcome and he learns from Ashley that his phone had been missing and he'd never sent any messages to Cole.  And he tells Cole this minutes before he is shot dead.  While he awaits RCMP Constable Wayne Kirkness, Cole is visited by Choch, the anthropomorphized spirit being Coyote, who reminds Cole of a deal they'd made ten years earlier when Cole had saved two friends, Eva and Brady, from a burning school in which everyone else perished, including Cole's mother. Now Choch expects payback though he doesn't tell Cole exactly what he needs of him.  After Ashley's murder and an illness hits the community, Cole is sure it is to make things right here at Wounded Sky.  But then two more murders and deaths from the illness have the community turning on Cole, whose arrival coincided with the newest tragedies.  How can he do right by Wounded Sky when it's obvious the community, except for a few, resent his return from the city and his earlier role in the fire in which he only saved two lives?

There are mysteries aplenty in Strangers and not all are able to be solved in this first book in the series.  Who murdered Ashley?  How is the research facility, now closed, involved in the tragedies at Wounded Sky? How did the fire at the school start? With the advice of his grandmother to find his peace and "If you accept yourself for who you are, you belong anywhere" (pg. 109), Cole faces the challenges of an angry community, the antics of an arrogant and reckless Choch, and his own anxiety to be the hero needed to heal himself and others.
All legends, Cole, come from some place of truth. Whether they're about Coyote or a sky that was cut and bled the heavens like tears, or a boy that saved others. Look at your own scars. (pg. 124)
Beyond David A. Robertson's intricate plotting, he creates a character of Wounded Sky itself.  He makes sure that readers, Indigenous or not, get an authentic glimpse of life on a reserve: remote, ignored, self-reliant, challenged, vulnerable and cohesive.  From Elder Mariah making hot muskeg tea and Cole's tobacco tie, to the northern lights of spirits playing and Coyote's pranks, Strangers is both singular and inclusive, educating readers and encircling many in its story. I look forward to Book 2 in The Reckoner series so that I can witness how David A. Robertson resolves mysteries first revealed in Strangers and undoubtedly creates a few more for Cole to confront.

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