This may easily be the most fascinating invented setting I’ve read for a murder mystery in ages, and that definitely includes the Anglo-Nordic nation Peter Spiegelman created for his excellent A Secret About A Secret. Imagine, if you will, a near-future world in which North America was never colonized by Europeans. Instead, the indigenous tribes were allowed to develop and war on their own, with the Anishinaabe culture eventually prevailing around the area we know in our reality as the Great Lakes.
Chibenashi is a Peacekeeper in the historic village of Baawitigong, in the Anishinaabe nation. It’s a relatively easy job: crime is low, ebbing and flowing with the influx of tourists, and most of his duties involve retrieving lost people and items. This suits him just fine, as his life otherwise is preoccupied with taking care of his needy younger sister Ashwiyaa, who has never really recovered from the one murder to afflict Baawitigong in the last twenty years: the slaying of their mother Neebin. Their father Ishkode confessed to the killing and was sent to prison in the nearest city, Shikaakwa, but the stain of his crime marks his offspring still, leaving them outsiders in the only home they’ve ever known. The siblings aren’t entirely friendless, but even the best efforts of their community falter in the face of Ashwiyaa’s instability. Only their immediate neighbors and their mother’s best friend Meoquanee insist on being there for them daily.
With the onset of the twentieth anniversary of his mother’s death, Chibenashi braces himself for the onslaught of memory and grief that accompany that date every year. What he does not expect is for another murder to shatter the peace and happiness of Baawitigong once more. Meoquanee has been slain in her own wigwam, and the evidence suggests that whomever killed Neebin all those years ago is responsible for her death too.
A shell-shocked Chibenashi is forced to place Ashwiyaa in the care of their neighbors as he makes the trip to Shikaakwa, not only to protect the custodial chain of evidence but also to interview the only other people who were present twenty years ago and might have been involved in both deaths. The big city provides both sensory and cultural overload for our small town hero, and that’s even before he’s forced to confront not only the father he’s avoided for two decades but also the lover who left him behind. Will Chibenashi be able to overcome his own prejudices and fears in his pursuit of the devastating truth?
I’m ngl, the murder mystery in this book is pretty thin: whodunnit is obvious quite early on, tho why is presented in a fascinating, often elegant manner. The real star of this book is Anishinaabe culture. Allowed sovereignty and expansion, their religion of giving and care strongly shapes the forms their government, judiciary and economy take as the centuries pass. Which isn’t to say that their systems are entirely perfect, as B. L. Blanchard (herself an enrolled member of the Saulte Ste Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians) deftly points out: people fall through the cracks, and evil, hypocrisy and cultural imperialism are impossible to stamp out, try as people might to do the best they can. But it’s still a strong framework that emphasizes peace and goodness in a way that modern systems of governance often fail to embody, despite much lip service being given to those ideals.
As a fresh imagining of a world with minimal colonization, this is a wholly engrossing work, and one I’d highly recommend for anyone interested in both indigenous practices and in the effort of decolonization. Plus, it opens with a quote from Tommy Orange’s brilliant and sensitive There There and how could I possibly resist that?
The Peacekeeper by B.L. Blanchard was published today June 1 2022 by 47north and is available from all good booksellers, including