The Woman in the Woods and other North American Stories marks the fifth volume in the series of cautionary fables and fairy tales. The eight tales in this volume are from Indigenous nations, told and illustrated by Indigenous artists, and highlighting tales from Odawa, Chickasaw, Métis/Cree, Métis, Ojibwe, Tania, Navajo, and S’Kallam societies. The editors asked each of the authors to ask for permission from the Elders and/or nations to retell and rework the stories for inclusion in this anthology as they recognized and respected the protocol inherent in the gathering of the stories from the people. Unfortunately, there are no source notes included in the collection, making it of less value to educators, librarians, and storytellers than I had hoped. True, the intended audience is middle school readers, not scholars, but the authenticity of each of the tales should be paramount for them as well. I do appreciate the fact that each of the tribal affiliations has been identified for the tales.
While the tales are rendered in black and white with various hues of grey, the cover itself jumps with colour. Ironically, the story alluded to on the cover is not included in the collection. Editor and cover artist Alina Pete remarked that she had hoped to include the creation story of Sky Woman and Turtle Island, but she could not find anyone that had permission to tell this story. Sky Woman fell to the water-covered world and fell on the back of Turtle. One by one, the animals dive into the water to try and find land until Muskrat is successful in bringing back soil. Sky woman spreads the soil on Turtle’s back to create the world as we know it. She shows Sky Woman dancing for joy and two constellations on the back cover featuring two of the characters from the tales within the covers.
Most of the illustrations in the book itself have simple backgrounds, focusing on the characters of each tale. The different styles of illustrations make each of the stories individual in a collection continuous from tale to tale without any commentary. Most of the illustrations are rendered realistically, although one or two stories have manga-like characteristics and vary between historical and contemporary settings. They also vary in length.
The anthology begins with the Odawa creation story, “As it was told to Me,” retold and illustrated by Elijah Forbes, which demonstrates that the world needs the balance of good and bad to exist. It is followed by a trickster rabbit story about the cost of vanity from the Chickasaw people. “Chokfi” is written by Jordaan Arledge and illustrated by Mekala Nava. The next two stories are located closer to this reviewer. “White Horse Plains,” from the Métis settlement St. Francois Xavier, relates the tale of the dangers of greed and conflict. It is written and illustrated by Rhael McGregor. The second Métis tale is possibly the most familiar character in the collection for me. Written by Maija Ambrose Plamondon and illustrated by Milo Applejohn, “The Rougarou” tells the story of a werewolf like monster and a young boy who befriends the Rougarou. I must admit that while I am familiar with many Rougarou tales, this is the first time I have encountered this one. Alice RL’s Ojibwe tale of “Agonjin in the Water” relates a tale of another story of friendship between a human and a mythical creature: the mythical, Mishipeshu the Great Water Guardian of the lakes and rivers.
The Taino story that follows gave its title to the anthology. It is written and illustrated by Mercedes Acosta and also focuses on the relationship between a woman and a spirit of a young girl who sees the mysterious “Woman in the Woods.” The penultimate tale, “Into the Darkness,” is a Navaho shapeshifter tale about a character so frightful that no one dares to speak its name. It is written by Izzy Roberts and illustrated by Aubrie Warner. The final tale, written by Jeffrey Veregge and illustrated by Alina Pete, is a romantic tale from the S’Kallam people. The Moon in “By the Light of the Moon” falls in love with Octopus Woman, the Queen of the Salish Sea in Puget Sound. The bright light of the Moon makes it possible for the Moon to watch her dance and to send her kisses. The power of the kisses has a surprising repercussion.
The stories are followed by two pages of concise biographies of the creators including their tribal affiliations and, in most cases, their sexual orientations.
Recommended for middle school and public library collections. Because the book is part of the cautionary fables and fairy tales series, most of the stories have strong lessons imparted in the story line, but they are not dogmatic and do allow the power of the storytelling to shine through. I just wish there were adequate source notes—did I say that already?
Cautionary Fables & Fairy Tales, vol. 5: The Woman in the Woods and Other North American Stories Edited by Kate Ashwin, Kel McDonald, Alina Pete Iron Circus, 2022 ISBN: 9781945820977
Publisher Age Rating: 10-12 Series ISBNs and Order
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11) Creator Representation: Cree, Metis, Navajo, Bisexual, Queer, Genderqueer, Nonbinary, Trans, Two Spirit Character Representation: Cree, First Nations or Indigenous, Metis, Navajo
The very first page of Black Stars Above is a large, white box with small, cursive narrative text; so let’s start with the lettering by Hassan Ostmane-Elhaou. This comic is not only a slow-burn horror story by way of historical fiction, but it is also strongly dependent on characters’ journal entries providing the narration. Other textual effects include more standard lettering on spoken dialog, which uses carats to mark whether characters are speaking Michif or French, and white-on-black lettering inside of jagged speech bubbles for noises made by an alien creature. At the midway point of the story, the comic transitions into eight full pages of journal entries, with a couple of sketches included. Ostmane-Elhaou’s use of small, cursive font for journal entries will force readers to slow down as they scan through pages, and the effect this has on purely visual pages cannot be understated.
The second page of Black Stars Above is a wordless, four-panel sequence of some lynx traveling across snowy land; so let’s talk about more of the visual elements of this book. At the brightest of times, the Canadian wilderness is depicted as a gray wilderness with snow storms either taking over the horizon or directly flurrying the panels. A good deal of the comic takes place during dusk or nighttime, with lanterns and moonlight acting as dramatic light sources for the protagonist. Brad Simpson’s coloring is able to find a suitable range of hues for each situation, whether it’s the warm fireplace colors of a cabin, the cold blues and silvers of the snowy dark, or touches and waves of red as the story becomes more disturbing and violent. As mentioned before, the wordless segments of the story feel carefully paced to complement the dense use of text, making this a difficult comic to skim or skip through unless readers want to cheat themselves by “fast forwarding” to the horror reveals. Jenna Cha’s artwork and thoughtful paneling, which considers characters’ movements throughout each scene, deserves full consideration from beginning to end. Her talents include rendering a silhouette in a snowstorm, use of upside-down perspectives to visually suggest transitions that physically occur later, and eldritch creatures given a wintry spin that makes them simultaneously off-putting and kind of cute.
The third and fourth pages see the narrator and lynx meet; so let’s describe the actual story here. Lonnie Nadler’s script can be broken into three acts, each centering on Eulalie Dubois, a young woman on the Canadian frontier who yearns to escape her rural existence. In the first act, she struggles against the constricting expectations of her parents, including her First Nations mother and French father, who plan to marry her off to a nearby suitor. In the second act, Eulalie attempts to deliver a mysterious package on her own, with the hope of earning enough money to buy her independence. In the third act, the senses are assaulted as Eulalie travels to the eponymous black stars and discovers all kinds of freakiness and rituals. Images of cosmic horror that are briefly displayed or hinted at in the first couple of chapters receive thorough payoff in the latter half of the book, like a prestige horror film that plays with themes and setting but doesn’t forget to deliver the bloody goods. Far from schlock or grindhouse thrills, the journey of Black Stars Above could be described in Eulalie’s words as, “delirium walking hand in hand with awe.” People aren’t getting graphically murdered, or at all, but the book’s surreal imagery around madness, alien creatures, and disruption to the natural order is highly suggestive.
Where content warnings are concerned teens and older who know the word “cthulu” will be uniquely excited to follow this book’s immersive bread crumbs into madness. Animals are skinned and gutted, including the sight of an animal fetus dead in the womb. Creatures’ eyes drip black goo, and there is a brief scene of a topless woman. The literary tone that permeates the text, along with the less than accessible cursive font, means a good amount of focus will be required, but will also lead toward immense satisfaction and hope for a sequel in the same vein.
Black Stars Above By Lonnie Nadler Art by Jenna Cha ISBN: 9781939424532 Vault Comics, 2020 Publisher Age Rating: 12+
Browse for more like this title NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+) Character Traits: First Nations or Indigenous Characters Multiracial, Creator Highlights: BIPOC Creator
“As I was reading, I thought about the idea of an apocalypse, or the end of the world as we know it. Indigenous writers have pointed out that, as Indigenous people, we all live in a post-apocalyptic world. The world as we knew it ended the moment colonialism started to creep across these lands.” —Alicia Elliot
This Place: 150 Years Retold is a remarkable graphic compilation featuring eleven Indigenous writers and eight illustrators presenting Canadian history over the last 150 years from a myriad of perspectives, including Métis, Inuit, Dene, Cree, Anishinaabe, and Mi’kmaq, with a forward by author Alicia Elliott (Haudenosaunee). Several non-fiction stories are centered on historical incidents and people that, which, while not well-known outside of the families or tribes, have been passed down through generations and deserve to be more widely recognized. Others are fictitious accounts of great relevance to Indigenous society. Each of the stories are headed by timelines to place them in historical context, have an introduction by the creators, and follows a straightforward time continuum ending with the hard-hitting, bleak, and futuristic tale exploring the contemporary dangers of climate change, racism, and injustice. In “kitaskînaw 2350,” by Chelsea Vowel and Tara Audibert, their protagonist Wâpanacâhkos, a fifteen-year old Cree woman, is sent back three centuries to learn what happened to the people in our contemporary era.
The anthology opens with “Annie of Red River” by Katherena Vermette and Scott B. Henderson. Annie Bannatyne, a Métis woman from Red River (which is now Winnipeg, MB) in 1868, undertakes a dramatic and painful lesson for a journalist who insulted Métis women in the newspapers. Bold colors accentuate the strong facial and non-verbal gestures that illuminate the story of this proud and effective crusader. “Tilted Ground” by Sonny Assu, Kyle Charles and Scott A. Ford illuminates a time when the celebrations, language, and other elements of the Indigenous culture was deemed illegal by the federal government. When William “Billy” Assu became chief of the village of Wiw?qaýi he worked alongside and cooperated with the oppressors but, at the same time, secretly hosted the banned ceremonies for the community. His story and regalia are held at the Museum of Man in Ottawa. Illustrated in bright prime colors, the story vividly celebrates the wisdom, passion and fortitude of Billy. Jen Storm’s “Red Clouds,” is an account of the windigo, told through a woman’s perspective, a victim of the windigo, based on historical and oral records of the shaman Jack Fiddler and Wahsakapeequay herself. “There are stories that tell of red clouds appearing over an approaching windigo, as a warning or omen” (54). Natasha Donovan’s earthy visuals flow through the telling of the story of the evil windigo and the encroaching changes made upon the First Nations of Northern Ontario by the federal laws enforced by the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police). Donovan efficaciously illustrates the next entry as well. “Peggy,” written by David A. Robertson, is the story of a sniper in WWI. Francis “Peggy” Pegahmagabow was one of only thirty-eight Canadians to receive a military medal with two bars. His heroism at the front was not originally appreciated once he returned to Canada but with perseverance, he became a well-respected chief in 1921 and continued the ongoing battle against racism and discrimination. Natasha Donovan is also responsible for the striking and highly relevant cover of the anthology.
“Rosie,” by Rachel and Sean Qitsualik-Tinsley, introduces the reader to the feud between the Inuit and the Canadian government’s tyrannical measures in the early twentieth century. It is also an introduction to a broader understanding of Inuit shamanism. The cool tones of the blues and greens are effectively punctuated by splashes of vivid reds. “Nimkii,” by Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, Ryan Howe, and Jen Storm, explores the ongoing devastation evoked by the Sixties Scoop of the late 1950s and 1960s. “As residential schools close, thousands of Indigenous children are removed from their families and placed in non-Indigenous foster or adoption homes. Many children are placed outside of Canada” (138). This tale, told through dark and bold illustrations peppered with softer child-like drawings, celebrates the strong bonds between Nimkii, a mother, and her son. Richard Van Camp and Scott B. Henderson’s “Like a Razor Slash” moves the timeline into the 1970s and the environmental battles between Dene Chief Frank T’Seleie and the Canadian government eventually defeating the government plan to build a pipeline from the Beaufort Sea to Alberta. The evocative illustrations and color scheme reflect our contemporary situation in Alberta. Richard Van Camp quotes David J. Parker’s “Submission to the Joint Review Panel investigating the proposed McKenzie Valley Pipeline” in the preface to the story to put his title in context. “Some dismissed the impact of a pipeline, saying it would be like a thread stretched across a football field. Those close to the land said the impact would be more like a razor slash across the Mona Lisa” (168). Brandon Mitchell’s and Tara Audibert’s “Migwite’tmeg: We Remember It” relates another example of governmental interference and sanctions on First Nations in the story of the 1980s salmon raids in Mi’gmaq territory. Bold neon-like colors and stark backgrounds highlight the community and the conflict effectively and with precision. In “Warrior Nation” by Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair and Andrew Lodwick, Raven, a residential school survivor, and her son Washashk travel across the country to join the stand off against the RCMP in the Quebec community of Kanehsatà:ke. The Oka conflict is possibly one of the most familiar of the clashes for sovereignty and Indigenous rights within Canada and beyond our borders and this story furthers the understanding of the components and people involved in the conflicts.
This is truly a compelling collection of stories revealing the power of storytelling both visually and textually in offering a window to understanding Indigenous history in the last 150 years as told by Indigenous people. For those who wish to investigate further, there are several pages of end notes to the well-researched stories as well as several pages of recommended readings in the “Select Bibliography”. Highly recommended for those interested in Canadian history, Indigenous rights and enduring racial tensions on both sides of the border. Highly recommended for North American high schools, public, and academic libraries.
This Place: 150 Years Retold By Alicia Elliott Art by Natasha Donovan ISBN: 9781553797586 Highwater Press, 2019 Publisher Age Rating: 15+
Browse for more like this title Character Traits: Métis, Inuit, Dene, Cree, Anishinaabe, Mi’kmaq Creator Highlights: Own Voices, Haudenosaunee Creator, Métis Creator