This review is on the first three of four volumes of a visually poignant and enthralling graphic novel series about the Métis people of western Canada. The fourth and final volume, The Road Allowance Era, is forthcoming in April 2021. Contrasting the critical Canadian historical events with contemporary Echo’s current story, the series reveals how past governmental policies have shaped the current day experiences of a people.

Echo Desjardins, a thirteen-year-old Métis girl discovers that she has the magical ability to time travel back and forth to witness important events in Canadian Métis history. For readers outside of Canada, the Métis  have a distinct collective identity, with customs and culture, that are unique from Indigenous or European roots. Their roles in Western Canadian history have been contentious and distinctive, and often persists to be misconstrued and ignored today.  Echo’s magic allows her, and the reader, to more fully understand critical events of 19th century Canadian history and their repercussions through the individual entries in the series:  The Pemmican Wars, the Red River Resistance, and the Northwest Resistance.

Echo, an extremely quiet and reserved teen, is in a new foster home, missing her mother, and attending a new school when she first slips through time, and back, while attending her social studies class. These vivid and active time slips offer insight and augment her knowledge about her own family background, heritage, and history.  Present day Echo is mostly silent as is a large portion of the graphic novel series, superbly written by Katherena Vermette, an award-winning Métis poet and writer and effectively and brilliantly illustrated by Scott B. Henderson and coloured by Donovan Yaciuk. Their combined understanding of the issues, landscape, and people of the area bring an added vitality and realism to the series. Much of the story arc is delivered by narration boxes augmented by brief dialogue amongst characters mostly in the historical sections of the story. Poignant images throughout the series are those of “Mom’s play list” that Echo constantly listens to when not attending classes. The importance of the music and the connection with her mother are echoed (pardon the pun) in all the cover illustrations where her earbuds are resolutely visible as part of her personality.

In the first volume, Echo, a troubled and lonely teen, finds herself, without warning, transported out of her Winnipeg, Manitoba social studies classroom into a buffalo hunt in 1814 in the Qu’Appelle Valley, Saskatchewan during The Pemmican Wars. [1] During the following few weeks, Echo finds herself transported back and forth in time to visit the old fur-trade routes and a Métis camp where she is befriended by a young girl. Oddly enough, the fact that Echo remains in her contemporary clothing does not seem to evoke notice or comment by anyone in the historical segments. The volume concludes with Echo sharing her new found knowledge with her mother as she visits with her in her group home.  I was enchanted by the school library sequences in this volume and the selection of books that Echo selects to read.

Echo’s story is continued in volume 2 when she travels between her contemporary life and a Métis community in 1869 during the Red River Resistance.[2]  Her contemporary life seems to be settling down as Echo adjusts to the school, the foster home, the visits with her mother, and the continual discovery of her Métis heritage and history. A delightful humourous aside occurs in a illustration of the bake sale sign up sheet where Echo signs her name below that of Katherena Vermette (page 14). Echo shares her time slip adventures with Benjamin, a young Métis man she meets when first transported into this historical era. The volume concludes with Echo in tears as she witnesses her new friends being forced to leave their land.

The third volume begins with Echo’s mother coming to stay with her in the foster home. Echo’s historical travels take her to 1885, to the Northwest Resistance.[3] Riel has returned from exile to resist encroaching forces to ensure his people’s rights. Amongst the chaos Echo meets Josephine, Benjamin’s daughter. She also discovers, in conversations with her mother, a treasury of family photographs and her family tree. Benjamin is her grandmother’s great grandfather who lived to be 102, living through both resistances. The series will conclude with Volume 4, The Road Allowance Era.

Through the insight of major past events, Echo develops her own strength and sense of belonging. She is no longer the lost and lonely individual that related more to the playlist on her iPhone than the people around her. I eagerly await to see how it all comes together by the end of volume 4. I have included footnotes for readers who may not be aware of the struggles of the Métis people and much of their history is largely unknown.

The vibrant colour palate, the realistic illustrations, and the creative panel layout add to the vivacity of the history and the tales being told. Effective depiction of body language and facial features plus the historical accuracy of the writing and art make this series a highly recommended purchase for middle school, high school, public library, and academic library collections. Each volume includes a brief time line of the historical era explored in that volume plus additional material such as a recipe for pemmican, brief introductions to admirable historical characters, and maps.

[1] The Pemmican War was a series of armed confrontations during the North American fur trade between the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) and the North West Company (NWC) in the years following the establishment of the Red River Colony in 1812. It ended in 1821 when the NWC merged with the HBC. Unlike the Hudson’s Bay Company, which imported most of its provisions from England, the NWC relied heavily upon locally procured pemmican, the majority of which was purchased from the local Métis. Pemmican was made of dried buffalo meat pounded into a powder and mixed with melted buffalo fat.

[2] The Red River Rebellion (or the Red River Resistance, Red River uprising, or First Riel Rebellion) was the sequence of events that led up to the 1869 establishment of a provisional government by the Métis leader Louis Riel at the Red River Colony, in what is now Manitoba.

[3] The North-West Rebellion of 1885 was a rebellion by the Métis led by Louis Riel against the Canadian government. Many Métis felt that Canada was not protecting their rights, their land, and their survival as a distinct people. During the rebellion, Riel was captured, put on trial, and convicted of treason. Despite many pleas across Canada for clemency, he was hanged. Riel became a heroic martyr to the Métis and Francophone Canada.


A Girl Called Echo: Pemmican Wars
By Katherena Vermette
Art by Scott B. Henderson and Donovan Yaciuk

VolumeISBN
19781553796787
29781553797470
39781553798316

Highwater Press, 2017
Publisher Age Rating: Teen
Series ISBNS and Order

Title Details and Representation
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Middle Grade (7-11), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Character Traits: First Nations or Indigenous
Creator Highlights: Metis
Related to…: Book to Comic

  • Gail

    Reviewer

    Professor, Library and Information Studies, University of Alberta | She/Her

    In addition to teaching at the School of Library and Information Studies (University of Alberta) where she is an adjunct professor, Gail tells stories and conducts workshops on a wide variety of topics across Canada and the United States. Each year she teaches the following courses for the University of Alberta. All of her courses are delivered online: Storytelling, Comic Books and Graphic Novels in School and Public Libraries, Canadian Children’s Literature for School and Public Libraries and Young Adult Literature. She also teaches a course on Indigenous Literature for the ATEP program (Aboriginal Teacher Education Program) at the University of Alberta. Gail is the award-winning author of nine books on storytelling and folklore in popular culture.

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