One morning, Malian awakens from a dream to find a dog outside her grandparents’ home on the reservation, where she’s been staying since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s the same dog, in fact, that she’d been dreaming of only minutes before. She names him Malsum, which means “wolf” in the language of her people, the Penacook.
Malsum may look fierce, but he proves to be a gentle and loyal protector. When a coughing mail carrier approaches the house, Malsum’s bark keeps him at bay. When a woman from social services shows up, checking to see if the home Malian is living in is “fit” for children, Malsum stands between Malian and danger once again, his lethal canines bared.
If Malsum is Malian’s protector, her grandparents are her lodestar. They provide the stories and histories that lead her to a deeper understanding of herself and her country. Their stories reveal how COVID-19 and the postal service worker who exhibits its symptoms are not only a threat but also a reminder of pandemics past, of smallpox and other diseases that decimated Native tribes. Their stories link the nosy social service worker to generations of mistreatment of Native people, whether through bad faith treaties that forcibly removed them from their lands or by so-called “boarding schools” that separated children from their families, languages and culture.
Joseph Bruchac’s Rez Dogs is a poignant reminder that history, story and identity are intimately intertwined. Bruchac centers the story of one Native American girl during the pandemic and, with it, the stories of her family and her people. This short, pithy novel written in spare verse brings the weight of history to bear on the present, revealing not only how history shapes us but how, through the stories we tell, we can shape history.