[Penguin Canada, 410 pages]
The second novel in Canadian author Joseph Boyden’s loose trilogy, Through Black Spruce tells a dual story about Will Bird, a Cree bush pilot in a coma in Moose Factory, Ontario, and his niece Annie. As Will lays in a coma, Annie tells him stories about her travels to Toronto, Montreal and New York City in search for her missing supermodel sister, while Will tells Annie, even though she can’t hear him, about what led to the violence that put him into a coma. What Annie doesn’t realize is how intertwined her sister’s disappearance is with the reasons her uncle was attacked. As she discovers why her sister’s missing, Will reveals how his hometown of Moosonee has been affected by its history and the present.
A major focus of the novel is the collapse of culture and traditional ways of the Cree in Moosonee, and how people can lose themselves. As a community, Moosonee has experienced the residential schools and been introduced to drugs and alcohol, which has led to a struggling community with a loss of culture and identity. Boyden briefly explores Will’s resentment towards residential schools when his parents lacked the will to fight to keep their child from going to one, just as he explores how the community has changed with the increasing availability of drugs and alcohol. In Will’s older age, while he struggles with an unhealthy alcoholic lifestyle, the young members of the community are being introduced to drugs by a local family, the Netmakers, which have increased the incidence of accidents and violence in the community. After realizing that the children of the community are getting caught up in a drug-filled lifestyle that’s causing them harm, Will Bird takes action to destroy the cause, and to get out of the rut that his alcoholic lifestyle has put him into. Will’s story is about finding his old self again and helping his community do the same.
As Annie discovers the Netmaker’s connection to the outside world that’s allowed them to bring drugs into Moosonee on her journey, she becomes immersed in a party lifestyle and becomes a model like her sister, who has disappeared with her boyfriend Gus Netmaker. In contrast, Annie is a resourceful bush woman when she’s home, not the “Indian princess” that her model friends have defined her as, with a strong connection to tradition through her grandfather and uncle. However, Boyden also touches on the reality that Moosonee’s people have moved away from living off the land to living in houses and shopping at the local grocery store for overpriced and unhealthy food. Annie is one of the few young people that can keep tradition alive through her family’s heritage.
I enjoyed the book immensely and highly recommend it. Having visited the area a year ago, I can attest to the fact that Joseph Boyden offers a glimpse into Moosonee that, even though the book is fiction, creates a truthful and vivid account of life in the James Bay area. The place is just as he describes it, right down to the Northern Store and the offshoot of river littered with bicycles just off the main street. Through Black Spruce is worth the read for anyone wanting to learn about how a Cree community in Canada has been affected by its history and how their way of life has changed drastically from outside influences.