Book Title: The Barren Grounds
Author: David Alexander Robertson
Genre/Subgenre: Fantasy MG/YA
Theme: Redemption and self-discovery.
The Nitty Gritty: It’s important to remember this book is intended for MG or lower YA readers. The author uses a mysterious world accessed through a portal to teach two Indigenous foster kids about who they are and what’s really important.
Ideal Audience: MG/YA readers who enjoy fantasy
Strengths: Robertson takes a step beyond adventure to create characters with real-life problems they need to confront.
Hot Take: The Barren Grounds centers around Morgan, a teenager who’s spent most of her life in foster care, bouncing from one home to the next. It was easy to appreciate how frustrated and angry Morgan was, considering she’d been treated like a commodity by so many foster families. Morgan’s built up a lot of walls around herself to protect herself from being hurt, and she has a tendency to sabotage situations before others can reject her. She’s unhappy when her foster parents add another foster child to the family, and even more unhappy about the fact that she has to walk with him to school and help him fit in. The good parts of Morgan’s heart are still there, though, and when she lashes out and hurts Eli’s feelings she feels bad about it. She takes risks to help replace one of his cherished items and decides to invite him into her private space in the attic where she goes to escape.
The attic leads them to the portal that transports them to Misewa, a land that’s been trapped in eternal winter ever since a man stole the summer birds. The talking animals that live in Misewa no longer trust men, but when Eli travels through the portal on his own, Ochek takes a chance on him and welcomes him. When Morgan goes to find Eli, she’s anxious to return home, but soon realizes that time works differently in Misewa. They have just enough time to accompany Ochek on a journey and help him find the summer birds so that Misewa can survive.
During her time in Misewa, Morgan begins to have dreams of memories from her childhood, from before she was put in foster care. These dreams help her understand what really happened and let go of the anger and hurt she’s carried. She doesn’t change overnight, however. She’s still tempted to leave Misewa behind and return to her foster family. Morgan is prone to outbursts and has hurt a lot of people, but she promised her foster parents she wouldn’t run away, and she’s determined to keep that promise, which is actually a sign of growth for her. Morgan does start to recognize her bad behavior for what it is, and even when she has outbursts she makes amends. When Eli’s life is threatened she finds the courage to save him. While she was upset about being forced to assume responsibility for Eli at the start of the book, by the end she’s accepted her responsibility and takes it seriously. She also learns to let down her guard a bit and accept others.
I found it incredibly realistic that she fluctuated back and forth. Nobody snaps their fingers and changes. Morgan realizes she’s her own worst enemy sometimes, but even after she apologizes to one person she still makes mistakes with others. She’s learning and growing.
Morgan’s redemptive arc reminds readers they can become a better person, they can forgive themselves, and they can forgive others. There’s another important component to this story, however. Morgan and Eli’s stories aren’t glossed over. Far too many Indigenous children have been stripped from their homes and placed in foster care, which is perpetuating colonial trauma and harming Indigenous communities. Robertson doesn’t shy away from this. He shows how hard it is for Indigenous children—in fact, any child—to grow up in foster care and underscores how it damages their sense of home, self, and family. Both Morgan and Eli are struggling to find a way to determine who they are and connect with their culture, and their experiences in Misewa help them do that in a meaningful and powerful way.
Book Score: 4.5 stars
Cover Score: 4.5 stars
Trigger Warnings: foster care setting