Joan’s husband stormed off into the woods a year ago, after a rare fight. He never came back. At least, that’s what Joan thought. As Empire of Wild, by Cherie Dimaline, opens, Joan stumbles into a tent revival meeting. She’s still drunk from the night before but she would recognize her husband Victor anywhere. She has no idea how he came to be leading a church meeting at a tent; it’s about the last thing she would have expected. She certainly didn’t expect that he wouldn’t recognize his wife at all.
Joan’s family of Métis have clung tightly to their land in Quebec. They’re muddling along, but it’s clear that they’re not doing much better than surviving. Some family units have been broken. Only the oldest members of the family remember any of their language and traditions. That said, they’re not giving up anything else. In fact, the argument that sent Victor out into the woods in a huff was about selling some of the family land to get ahead for a change. Joan flat out refused to sell. Even after he’s been missing for a year, Joan hasn’t given up on finding Victor.
When Joan runs into her husband at the tent revival—in his guise as Eugene Wolff—Joan will not walk away from the church folks’ explanations that Joan is drunk and that she’s mistaken their preacher for someone else. Along with her nephew Zeus, Joan starts to stalk the tent revival in the hope that she will figure out a way to help Victor remember who he really is. Meanwhile, interstitial chapters show Victor lost in a wood with a terrifying creature that wants to eat him. If Victor stops moving, he’ll lose himself and Joan forever. These chapters confirm what Joan’s elders are telling him: that Victor has been possessed by a rougarou. If Victor can’t get out of the woods and Joan can’t save him from the increasingly sinister tent revival people, he will become the same kind of creature that is trying to consume him.
Empire of Wild is a tense, engaging ride. I loved how Dimaline built in more and more layers with each chapter. At first, this looks like a case of a husband running off and starting over in a surprising. Then, there are hints that something supernatural is going on. Later on, another shocking layer is revealed that explains everything. And the final twist at the end is a brilliant—albeit heartbreaking—cap to a cracking good read.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.