Book Review: “Paying the Land” by Joe Sacco

Cover of Joe Sacco's "Paying the Land"
In this fascinating, immaculately illustrated graphic novel, cartoonist Joe Sacco travels north to Canada’s Northwest Territories to spend time with the Dene people who are native to the region. He introduces us to a broad cast of characters who walk us through the region’s history, highlighting the difference between traditional and industrial ways of life.

Paying the Land” spends time with snowmobiles and moose-skin boats, dog-sleds and salmon camps, winter roads and resource extraction. It also delves into politics, both the politics of exploitation that left the Dene people dispossessed as well as later movements that saw them working together (or at odds, in some cases) to reclaim their autonomy.

One of the book’s saddest topics is the Canadian government’s former policy of forcing Dene children into abusive residential schools that worked to eradicate their language, culture and family ties. Sacco’s interviews reveal how this policy, which affected many still living, continues to fracture families and communities today.

Sacco gives this trauma the space it deserves, exploring the alcoholism, abuse and suicides resulting from this devastation. At the same time, he also shares moments of joy and solidarity. A man shares his journey to sobriety and what it means to be a positive example for his son. A young adult reflects on the connection that a successful caribou hunt establishes with his ancestors. The book ends with a whole gymnasium playing the “hand game,” erupting into a kind of euphoria as one man beats the odds over and over again.

We remember these moments in part because Sacco is so successful in capturing the diversity of the people he meets up north. His interviews and his carefully rendered illustrations establish his characters as individuals–sometimes at odds with one another, but always memorable and distinct. It’s a great accomplishment.