‘Rez Dogs’ by Joseph Bruchac is a touching, timely, terrific middle grade novel about life during COVID on the reservation

Rez Dogs by Joseph Bruchac

“Rez Dogs” by acclaimed author Joseph Bruchac is not only a timely story about life on the reservation during COVID, it’s also the story of a girl and her dog, as well as a brief overview of the history of the government’s treatment of Native people even recently. All this in Bruchac’s evocative verse, succinct yet poetic and lovely.

When Malian wakes up one morning, a dog is outside her door, just as she had dreamed. She names the dog Malsum, which is wolf in the native language that her parents and grandparents keep alive for her—in spite of the best efforts of the American government to eradicate both the language and their tribal traditions. Malsum becomes more than just a companion to Malian (a name that is pronounced Maryann), he becomes her protector. He barks at the mailman, making the coughing man (COVID?) keep his distance instead of approaching the house to get a signature from one of her grandparents for a package. He growls at the unfriendly woman from Social Services—the government—who wants to check Malian’s living conditions to make sure they are “appropriate.” In this story, Bruchac shares that many generations of Native Americans were torn from their families, and in this novel, we learn that Malian’s grandfather was taken away and sent to an Indian School. (Read more about what an Indian School was in Bruchac’s gripping historical fiction “Two Roads,”) Her mother, also was ripped from her parents’ arms and sent into foster care. She was adopted by a wonderful couple who helped her find her birth parents and took her to visit them, so she was able to establish a relationship with them.

Bruchac also informs us about the forced sterilization that many Native women underwent when they went to a free clinic for a health care screening and woke up no longer able to have children. A teacher reading this book aloud might want to point out the similarity to what happened to Hispanic women in detention camps, where they visited the doctor and ended up sterilized. This happened now. In the United States of America.

Malian learns about the US government’s resistance when, as COVID worsened and spread, the reservation police closed roads into the reservation to those not living in the reservation, who were just using the road as a short cut. The tribal lawyer pointed out that the treaty between the government and the tribe allows for the tribe to enforce traffic on any road through the reservation.

The reservations are largely ignored by the government and they have poor schools, spotty internet connections, and poor health care. Yet they are proud and do what they can to help others. Malian hears the story about how, during the potato famine in Ireland, “some of our Indian people pooled money together and sent it to help them.” And even though they are not wealthy, they donated to help the Navajo nation, people who “were suffering some of the biggest rates of infections and deaths” from COVID.

A part that brought tears to my eyes was when Malian’s teacher, Ms. Mendelson, shared an episode from her recent past. Something that she was ashamed of, but something that many of us will empathize with. How even though we think we aren’t racist, there might still be something inside us that that is afraid of people with skin color different from ours. She apologized to the class, and in an effort to change things, she told the students, “We need to hear more of each other’s stories.”

Bruchac put those words into the mouth of the teacher because in this story, he tells us his stories. We hear about the creation of mankind, and that we were created to be kind to each other and to all living things. In her own story, Malian tells her classmates that “We need to be kind to each other and to all living things, make the circle strong for those who come after us. Instead of standing up alone…we need to bend our knees and touch the earth.”

Perhaps if enough children read this book, and take these words to heart, the next generation will be a kinder one, more attuned to the needs of the earth and the living things upon the earth. Perhaps our planet will have a chance to be healthy instead of polluted and raped of resources. Perhaps people will have a chance to walk and live safely—no matter the color of their skin, the language they speak, or the religion (or lack thereof) that they believe in.

This is exactly the kind of book teachers love to read to students. It’s educational, yes, but it’s also so much more. It’s a book that touches the heart and poses questions to the mind. It’s a book filled with themes (messages that the author imparts that we can reflect on and ponder to make our own lives better). Buy a copy for a middle grade reader (or teacher) you love.

Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provide by Dial Books for Young Readers, the publisher, for review purposes.