The Case of the Rigged Race by Michael Hutchinson


 The Case of the Rigged Race was my introduction to the Muskrats, and what a delight this meeting turned out to be. Although I joined this series in the fourth book, the author provided relevant background through comments and conversations, and it was easy to enter the world of Windy Lake.

“The Mighty Muskrats” is the name given to a group of four young cousins by their community of Windy Lake First Nation. We all know young people like the Muskrats; they are the ones that make us sigh and roll our eyes, but how they make us smile! They are the type of enthusiastic youngsters that one would love to see storming into a classroom: excited about learning,  keen to solve mysteries, bubbling with questions, and determined to find their way in life. They each have special talents and ways. Chickadee is a natural leader and enthusiastic proponent of her culture. Sam is the thinker and reader of the group. Atim seems to daydream, but he is the one who sees things in a new way. Otter is the quiet one, raised by his grandparents and well-educated in bush skills.  The  Muskrats banter and joke, but are never mean. They are independent, but have deep respect for the teachings of the Elders and strive to learn and live by traditional values. They are loyal, educated, and full of fun, and young people can enjoy them, learn from them, and imitate them.

The action opens at the teen sled race at the annual Trappers’ Festival when the lead dog on Atim’s team mysteriously collapses. Soon, the Muskrats are hot on the trail, gathering clues. They quickly realize that someone has sabotaged the teen race as a trial; the real target is the upcoming international race – and sabotaging that one might ruin the reputation of the race and the community. Suspects are identified and traced, but in the final showdown, we are left with the hope that balance can be restored.

As the plot unfolds, so much teaching takes place. The Muskrats and their allies sometimes do not agree with the Elders, but they still listen, show respect, and learn.  They are taught the history of floral designs in art. There are discussions comparing the uses of traditional and modern technology in moccasin-making. The Muskrats learn about the differences between traditional and city lifestyles and economies and discover some surprising similarities. The flour-packing sequence is excellent; we might already be aware that this practice involves packing heavy loads, but the author makes us feel every trembling centimetre as the loads are balanced, as the feet slide with glacial slowness. Many aspects of Indigenous life are explored in this novel.

The narrative does not shy away from the rougher side of things. Not all is perfect in Windy Lake, and the darker aspects, like Fish’s gambling struggles, are seen for what they are. At the same time, we are shown what can be. There is a harsh incident when Chet of the Animal Army challenges Uncle Jacob, his desire to help animals eclipsed by his blatant racism. It is Grandfather who defuses this situation, deciding that the best solution is for the Muskrats to set out to understand these protestors. They meet with Millie, and dialogue, after some resistance, begins. The Band constables show disapproval when a local troublemaker is manhandled by the RCMP, and when the constables make an arrest, they model dignity and respect. The Muskrats – and the reader — can learn from the examples they receive here.

At times, the perception of city dwellers seems rigid, but the Elders steer the Muskrats and the reader to a more balanced viewpoint. Not all outside people are city people, but many visitors at an event like the Trappers’ Festival would be from the city, and the urban environment is also the destination of many Indigenous youth. Thus, focusing on the city culture is important, and we have Grandfather and the Aunties to monitor any stereotyping.  

The Case of the Rigged Race, a novel written for the middle grades, has something to offer readers of all ages. This is an excellent resource for Indigenous youth, parents, and educators. There are also lessons for all. We are led to reflect on the stereotypes and the values that shape our lives; we are moved to acknowledge the shortcomings but celebrate the good.

The story is simply told, with good description, characterization, and building of action. Technically and thematically, it is a great book for young people, and a valuable story for all of us. I look forward to catching up on all the Muskrat adventures, and enjoying the learning along the way.

Michael Hutchinson is Swampy Cree from the Treaty 5 area and a member of the Misipawistik Cree Nation. He wrote the Mighty Muskrats Mystery series to educate young Canadians, build pride in First Nation and impoverished youth, and create a better Canadian and First Nations relationship.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Second Story Press (Sept. 20 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 232 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1772602213
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1772602210

 -- Website
Anne M. Smith-Nochasak grew up in rural Nova Scotia and taught for many years in northern settings including Northern Labrador,  the focal setting for her second novel. She has retired to Nova Scotia, where she enjoys reading, writing, and country living. She has self-published two novels through FriesenPress: A Canoer of Shorelines(2021) and The Ice Widow: A Story of Love and Redemption  (2022).