The Wheelhouse Project: Language

Go here for an introduction to the Wheelhouse Project. 


Empire of Wild by Cherie Dimaline may at first glance seem like an odd pick for the “language” wheelhouse. This novel focuses on Joan, a First Nations Métis woman, whose husband Victor stormed out of the house after a fight a year ago and disappeared. Joan has been obsessively looking for him ever since, and drinking too much, and her mother and brothers think it’s about time she accepts that he’s gone—either run off or dead, in either case, not coming back. But when Joan finds Victor working as a tent-revival preacher, with seemingly no memory of her or their life together, she begins to suspect something very strange happened to her husband that night. One of the community elders believes that he may have become or come under the influence of a rogarou, a sort of werewolf figure from First Nations lore who takes over men who drink too much, abuse children or women, or otherwise behave in antisocial, destructive ways.

Nancy Pearl, creator of the doorways to reading, describes the language doorway as “the hardest to define.” But she notes that language-focused readers tend to know this about themselves and seek out books wherein they can “marvel at how the author uses language; not at what is being said.” In a lot of ways, the language doorway probably encompasses much of what people think of as “Literature”—you’ve got your Homers and your Bröntes, your Virginia Woolfs and your James Joyces, your Jonathan Franzens and Toni Morrisons. Which may be why I found choosing a book to focus on for this doorway challenging. Nobody wants to listen to me (or anyone else, for that matter), opine yet again on the depths of Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness prose, however legitimately exquisite those depths may be. But then I read Empire of Wild.

Dimaline’s novel is something of a plot-y book, which makes sense for a story bringing “fantasy” elements into an otherwise “real world” setting. And it has amazing characters, not only Joan with her palpable grief and feeling of being torn by traditional and modern culture, but also her grandmother, Mére; community elder and rogarou stan Ajean; and awkward but earnest nephew Zeus. But the language of this novel halted my reading flow at multiple points, forcing me to pause, look again, and take in the linguistic view.

For example, the villain Heiser, the man behind the tent-revival, thinks to himself, “And now, of all things, he had a traveling Christian ministry to take care of. Not that it was all that hard. Christians were like house cats, really. Just leave out the sustenance and let them roam in a confined space where they think they’re free.” With this satirical metaphor, Dimaline both encapsulates Heiser’s villainy and comments on those who try to “save” Indigenous peoples.

She also embeds some insightful commentary on motherhood. Musing on his fraught relationship with his mother, Zeus thinks, “Joan was not a mother, but she seemed to understand that it was all fine and good to give everything, but being a mother also meant sometimes you had to create more just so you could hand it over. Find meals in the dust, build solutions out of napkins, conjure worlds from blood memory and then hand it all to your children as if it came easily. So you wouldn’t burden them.”

Later, Joan sits with Ajean and “noticed that one of [Ajean’s] work-whittled fingers was smothered by a family ring with two rows of cloudy birthstone gems. Probably an Avon special; all the grannies around here had them. It was also a feat of Herculean strength that their tiny hands could support such a weight, never mind that their small frames had supported so much life.” These passages force the reader to take a pause from the plot to focus on the characters and the world they inhabit.

That is what language doorway books do. They draw attention to themselves, to the creativity and construction embedded within the work. They break the flow but in order for the reader to pay attention, to be more present with the text as text. Crikey, that’s a lit-crit sentence. But I love that about language doorway books, the way that they “show the work” like a potter’s thumb leaves marks in the finished pot or mug. In Dimaline’s case, she embeds creative metaphors or moments of insight to bring us into the world. Woolf, for her part, constructs virtuosic passages of poetic prose to re-create the experience of a human mind. In both cases, I find myself reading not for “what happens next” and not only for who it happens to, but for the crafty fun of the journey.

Empire of Wild is a great book, apparently the first in a series, and highly recommended. It is not YA but an adult, complex realist-fantasy. In terms of my wheelhouse, it dings several bells, including: retellings of myths and fairy tales, bonus points for feminism, anti-racism, and/or realistic depictions of trauma and darkness; fantasy/magic books grounded or with a toe into the real world; and stories about grief and trauma that come at the subject slant.

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