Cole Harper – the protagonist of David A. Robertson’s impressive new novel for young adults – hasn’t returned to Wounded Sky First Nation in almost a decade. A high school senior in Winnipeg, with a part-time job and a plan for university (along with some considerable basketball skills), Harper fled the community as a child, in the wake of something tragic. The novel is coy about the exact nature of the events that drove Harper from his home: there was a fire, and the deaths of a number of children. These occurrences had something to do with the school, and were perhaps connected to the mysterious research facility on the edge of town. We learn very little from Harper, who has no interest in exploring the past – not even when he starts receiving increasingly frantic text messages from his childhood friend Ashley, still living at Wounded Sky, and desperate for Harper to return.
When Harper finally gives in to the pressure (largely at his grandmother’s urging), his return home is greeted with suspicion and scorn. Childhood confidante Eva is so angry with Harper she can barely speak, though she still wears the ring of sweetgrass he wove for her on the night of the tragedy.
Ashley, who did not, in fact, send the text messages summoning Harper back, greets his friend’s presence with horror: “You shouldn’t be here. You shouldn’t have come here.” Before he can explain why, Ashley is shot and killed. And then things get worse. A mysterious disease begins to ravage Wounded Sky, and more murders follow. There are ghosts and mysteries, shadowy figures in the forest.
And then there’s Coyote, who calls himself Choch as he toys with Harper, alternately urging him forward and drawing him back, slipping between human and animal form, never giving a straight answer. But then, what would you expect: he is Coyote, after all. Being a trickster is his nature.
Strangers is a powerful piece of storytelling – perfect for teen readers, but with much to appeal to an adult audience. As a thriller, it twists nicely when least expected, defying predictions without seeming deliberate. As a homecoming story, Robertson captures the dynamic of welcome and wariness, yearning for home and dreading the experience, the discomfort of the familiar. A member of Norway House Cree Nation, Robertson writes empathically of cultural dislocation, and plays with some of the tropes of fantasy novels rooted in Indigenous folklore, involving the spirit world and figures like Coyote. Strangers is clever and refreshingly self-aware (the passage where Choch explains, in the third person, about the involvement of “the mythological being known as Coyote” is delightful, and serves to answer a few nagging questions, considering “Coyote isn’t really a thing for us Crees. We’re more of a Wisakedjak kind of people.”
Crucial to the novel’s success is Robertson’s fearlessness. The author – who also penned When We Were Alone, a picture-book about residential schools which won a 2017 Governor General’s Literary Award – never seems to flinch. For example, Harper – given to surliness and an obnoxious (though guarded) superiority – isn’t always the most likeable of characters. Yes, his negative traits are covering his own discomfort and insecurity, but Robertson doesn’t let him off the hook. Instead, the author allows Harper to be off-putting, confident that readers will recognize the roots of his behaviour. Harper’s relatability builds naturally to a strange comfort and understanding over the course of the book.
This unflinching quality of Robertson’s writing leaves one both exhilarated and unsettled. Readers will find themselves eagerly anticipating the next book in what Robertson is calling the Reckoner series. It can’t come soon enough.