Review of Empire of Wild by Cherie Dimaline
Empire of Wild
by Cherie Dimaline
Empire of Wild is a supernatural thriller that combines the legend of the rogarou with a woman’s search for her missing husband. But it would be a mistake not to recognize that this is also a story about colonialism, about European/settler ideologies clashing with Indigenous ideas of hearth, home, and connection to one’s community and the land. Just as The Marrow Thieves showcases how settlers can go to any length to extract and exploit resources they see as necessary, Empire of Wild charts how we can lose ourselves to ambition and ego.
Nearly a year ago, Joan’s husband, Victor, walked out on her and suddenly went missing. In the tight-knit, predominantly Métis town of Arcand, Ontario, this was a big deal for a long time, especially given that Victor’s entrance into Jean’s life finally allowed her to settle down in a way that her community never thought she would. Now, Jean stumbles across Victor—except he is the Reverend Eugene Wolff, preacher for a small group of touring Christian revivalists led by the enigmatic, entirely-too-slick Thomas Heiser. Reverend Wolff claims he doesn’t know Jean, isn’t Victor at all—yet Jean is convinced he is her husband. Her resolution to get to the truth leads her into the woods of magic and shadows, even as Victor tries to find the way out of his own woods.
What stands out for me about Empire of Wild is the characters. There are so many interesting characters here: Joan, Zeus, Ajean, Victor, Heiser, Cecile—all of them are significant and, in turn, receive plenty of development from Dimaline. Yet even minor characters, like Jimmy Fine, take on this larger-than-life quality that make this book feel like a kind of modern fairy tale. Joan has gone off the path into the woods, and the people she encounters along the way aren’t just people but parables for her education.
Joan’s relationship with Zeus, the way he tags along like a sidekick but she ultimatly decides she doesn’t want to put him in harms way, is adorable. I enjoy the complex interplay of the characters here, whether it’s the way Joan’s mom and brother give her tough love, or Zeus’ complicated teenage relationship with his mom. Perhaps the most surprising character for me was Cecile, whom I assumed was going to be a one-dimensional minion for the side of the antagonists. Dimaline instead gives us an entire backstory that makes her into an interesting, three-dimensional character whose betrayal both of Joan and of Heiser makes the book all the more fascinating.
Then we have Heiser, whose rapport with canines forms the basis for the supernatural aspects of the book. Heiser isn’t just the leader of a small group of Christian revivalists—he is mainly a consultant for development projects that want to move north. Empire of Wild lays bare the depressing but not surprising ways in which mining companies, other similar corporate outfits, will use religion as a way to captivate and manipulate Indigenous communities whose land they want to develop or exploit. In this way, Dimaline illustrates how colonialism in Canada is ongoing. This book is pointed social commentary about the fact that neither government nor corporations truly treat First Nations, the Inuit, or Métis as sovereign nations. Their consent to development projects is seen as an obstacle to overcome rather than a collaboration to be earned. Heiser is a toxic, irredeemable character—not because he is a white man of European descent, but because he is a white man of European descent who willingly steeps himself in colonial tactics of control and exploitation for his own advancement.
The inclusion of the rogarou mythos precludes reading this story as a simplistic tale of “settler = bad, Indigenous = good” though. Rather, Dimaline stresses (especially through the mouthpiece of Ajean) that there must be balance among the forces of nature. A rogarou is the most extreme example of someone who is out of balance, a man who succumbs to his most atavistic self until it consumes him and leaves him nothing but a beast. Without going into spoilers, the way that Dimaline portrays characters’ internal struggles against their rogarous is fascinating, and while it isn’t always straightforward to follow what’s happening, these dream-like sequences create an important backbone to the novel. They underlie the theme that connection is what is most important. The characters in this novel who succumb to the infection of the rogarou are characters who, in their hearts, feel disconnected as a result of their actions and the actions of others.
This is more than a thriller. It’s a carefully crafted mystery laced with the supernatural the way a chef seasons a soup with the finest of spices. I became very invested in Joan’s quest to get Victor back, and the abrupt and shocking ending—which invites but does not promise a sequel—feels oddly fitting for a book that is simultaneously punk rock and rockabilly/blues. When you read Empire of Wild you need to grab and hold on, but if you manage to do so, this book will take you places.