When I started this column on race in dystopian YA literature, a reader recommended I check out Shadows Cast by Stars, Métis author Catherine Knutsson’s dystopic tale set on Canada’s western coast 200 years from now.
In the book, a plague has ravaged the world. The only cure is antibodies found in the blood of aboriginal people (or “Others” as they are known by non-aboriginals). Government forces, or “searchers,” round up people of aboriginal descent so that their blood can be harvested to cure Plague victims. The aboriginal people die in the process but the government rationale is, “What is the loss of one when that person can help so many?”
Unlike the other books I’ve looked at so far, every character who appears in Shadows is aboriginal. This does not mean racism has disappeared. There are mentions of schoolyard bullies who torment aboriginal students, the faceless searchers firing from helicopters overhead and, of course, the looming threat of the non-aboriginal government, but they are off in the distance. This is a novel centered entirely on its aboriginal characters.
Sixteen-year-old Cassandra Mercredi, her twin brother Paul, and her father live on land once owned by her great-grandfather. They live the Old Way—without central heat, etherstreams, data nets, or food gels. Every morning, Cassandra and Paul take the train to school in a city while their father drives to work. Because their mother was not aboriginal, the twins are less at risk for being hunted and harvested for their blood. Their father has managed to keep his aboriginal heritage a secret at work, but Cassandra worries that “sooner or later someone will catch on, and my father will be entered into the UA inventory.”
Then, a new strain of the Plague hits and the government begins rounding up people of partial Aboriginal descent. Cassandra and her family flee to the Island, a territory protected by a group called “The Band”—they’re what remain of indigenous and aboriginal nations in North America. Two hundred years earlier, the Band negotiated five treaty territories. The Island is one of them.
Most of the novel takes place on the Island. At times, Shadows could be simply another novel of a girl moving to a new town and trying to find her place. There’s a normalcy about everyday life. Cassandra tries to make friends. She meets a boy. Her brother begins finding his own way and drifts apart from her. Cassandra no longer has to hide her ability to see people’s spirit animals. The Band’s medicine woman, Madda, takes her as apprentice. (Okay, so those last two aren’t usually in the Girl-Moves-to-New-Town-and-Tries-to-Fit-In narratives.)
Although every person on the Island is aboriginal, like native people throughout the U.S. today, they vary in appearances. Avalon is blonde while Helen is dark-haired and moonfaced. Bran, the son of the Band’s missing leader, has auburn hair and gray eyes while Cedar is stout with dark hair and dark eyes.
And, while the Island itself is protected from government forces and searchers by a mystical boundary, it is not inoculated from the prejudices of the outside world. Some of the Island’s inhabitants hold both Cassandra’s mixed ancestry and her origins against her. For others, Cassandra’s gender is also an issue: When Cassandra becomes apprentice to the Island’s medicine woman, she experiences the sexism of the Island’s all-male Elders first through Madda’s frustrated attempts to reason with them and then firsthand. When Cassandra escapes a sexual assault, the Elders imply that she brought the attack upon herself.
Shadows Cast by Stars is a great way to introduce kids—and adults—to an aboriginal-focused story. Then there are plenty of real-life groups around today to keep up the education around aboriginal issues.
Given that Shadows is set in aboriginal Canadian land, I’d be remiss in not encouraging blog readers to keep up with Idle No More, the grassroots and indigenous-led movement that emerged in Canada and has spread throughout North America this past year. And, in the U.S. this month, Lakota grandmothers and elders have embarked on a thirteen-city Truth Tour to raise awareness about the abuses against the Lakota people, mobilize solidarity networks to benefit Lakota Elders, and renew the Lakotas’ traditional matriarchal leadership. (Did you know that the Lakotas were traditionally matriarchy-led? I didn’t until the Truth Tour brought this to my attention.)