Although I read fewer murder mysteries these days than I did in my youth, I still have a soft spot. Add in the allure of an alternative world in which Europeans never colonized what we call North America, and … yeah, I’m into it. The Peacekeeper is both a satisfying mystery and a thoughtful work of science fiction, and as such, it works for me on multiple levels.
Thanks to NetGalley and publisher 47North for the eARC.
The novel takes place in and around what we would call Sault Ste. Marie but what the Anishinaabeg call Baawitigong. (Blanchard is a member of the Sault Chippewa nation.) For those unfamiliar with it, Sault Ste. Marie is actually two cities—one on the Canadian side of the border, in Ontario, and one on the American side, in Michigan. (This is actually more common than you might expect, though they don’t always have the same name.) In The Peacekeeper, of course, it’s one place because there is no border. Baawitigong itself is a village, small enough for everyone to know everyone (and their business). Chibenashi is one of the village’s three peacekeepers. On the night of Manoomin, a festival celebrating harvest, someone murders a close friend of Chibenashi’s—twenty years to the day that someone murdered his mother. Chibenashi leave behind his fragile sister, Ashwiyaa, to seek answers in the nearby metropolis of Shikaakwa. Not only is he unused to the big city, however, but he is unprepared to confront ghosts from his past—an ex-girlfriend turned Advocate, and the estranged son of the murder victim. This case might prove Chibenashi’s undoing.
I love how Blanchard goes about creating a flawed protagonist in Chibenashi. He is not your stereotypical hard-boiled detective with an ex-wife and a chip on his shoulder and a drinking problem. He doesn’t drink. He doesn’t do much of anything, really, except his job (which is not exactly demanding) and trying to take care of his sister. This latter duty has kept him from expanding his social circle or setting his sights on a life elsewhere, like Shikaakwa. Yet the murder of a close friend, someone who was like an Auntie to him and Ashwiyaa, forces Chibenashi to leave Baawitigong. In an unfamiliar milieu and confronted by a peacekeeper from Shikaakwa who gets on his nerves, Chibenashi’s patience is tested. Is it any surprise when he breaks? I appreciate that our protagonist is flawed—I would say he teeters on the point of being unlikeable, yet for me he never quite crosses that line. Rather, he’s just never really processed his trauma. Now that this crime has stripped away the time that has passed since that trauma occurred, he has no defences left to keep his demons at bay.
The mystery itself is pretty good. I guessed who the killer was pretty early in the book (I mention this only because this is rare for me). Nevertheless, Blanchard handles the reveal and climax quite well. This is a case of a whodunit where I solved it because the clues were laid out plain to see—indeed, if Chibenashi were not so distracted by his own issues, he would have seen them too. Through this mystery, Blanchard asks interesting questions about our obligations to our kin. How far would you go to protect your child? Your sibling? Your parent? Chibenashi and Ashwiyaa’s relationship is one of intense co-dependency—it is not healthy—yet neither are the relationships between Sakima and Wiishkobak or Meoquanee. When Chibenashi meets Daaksin again, he is reminded that she chose to left—he sees this as a betrayal, but it is in reality perhaps one of the healthiest relationship endings we get in this book. Sometimes you have to walk away. Chibenashi doesn’t learn that for a long time.
I suspect, however, that for most readers of this book the standout aspect will be the worldbuilding. It certainly was for me. Blanchard does not spend much time justifying this alternative world—we never learn why colonization didn’t happen. And that’s OK. I’m happy to leave that blank, take it as read, and simply consider the consequences—and there are many. This is a world that has developed parallel to ours: there are cell phones and tablets, movies, guns, etc. Yet at the same time, so much is different. The justice system is restorative rather than punitive (or at least, it tries to be). Settlements try to coexist with the natural world. Movies get dubbed into Anishinaabemowin because most of the characters in this book don’t speak English. The African slave trade never happened, and so nations in Africa have flourished in various ways.
Despite colonization never happening, Mino-Aki (the nation where Chibenashi lives) is not a paradise. As we know, there are crimes. The novel features an incident of domestic violence, abuse, and stalking that has a grisly end to it. Through Takumwah, Blanchard explores how conflict among nations, and issues of assimilation and discrimination, is still possible in an uncolonized world. In so doing, she affirms that this alternative world is different but still realistic—humans are flawed creatures capable of darkness no matter who we are, where we live, what societies we build.
Nevertheless, I loved this thought experiment. As a white person, I can’t pretend to comment on this from an Indigenous perspective. But I would love to see more stories like this—not just stories of possible Indigenous futures, but also stories of different Indigenous presents! In imagining a different world, Blanchard helps us to imagine alternatives to the current world we inhabit. She reminds us that, in fact, none of the world we inhabit right now was inevitable. It is the result of a series of choices, and we can make it different—can decolonize, build something new—if we choose.
So The Peacekeeper is many novels in one. It’s the story of a man whose relationships are attenuated and fragile. It’s a murder mystery that hides a tragic truth at its core. And it’s a testament to imagining a different present, one in which the nation on whose land I reside (I’m in Thunder Bay) was able to continue thriving as it was long before European contact. It succeeds at all of these things, to varying degrees, and certainly enough that I would love to read the next book Blanchard writes in this world.