Saturday, April 11, 2009

Through Black Spruce
Joseph Boyden

Joseph Boyden's second novel is a meditation on family and identity, both personal and cultural, which takes us from the frozen wastelands of Northern Canada to, in another sense, the frozen wastelands of Toronto, Vancouver and New York City. This is the second in what is rumoured to be a trilogy of works, the first being 'Three Day Road' which was nominated for The Governor General's award in Canada and winner of the Roger's Writers fiction prize, both in 2005. This reader had not read 'Three Day Road' before reading 'Through Black Spruce'.

The novel follows two intertwining stories, that of Will Bird who is in a coma and his niece, Annie Bird, who sets out on a quest to find her missing younger sister Suzanne. Will narrates his story from his coma and Annie tells her story to her Uncle in a bid to wake him. The events they relate catalogue how each of them deals with the conflicts that have arisen within their 'clan' - in it's broadest sense the Cree Aboriginal First Nation People of Mooseonee and in its narrower sense of their family- and the incursion into their community of 'civilisation' with all it's attendant problems of addiction, trauma and Oprah .

The catalyst for the problems Will and Annie face is the disappearance of Suzanne one Christmas morning with Gus Netmaker, her boyfriend. The Netmakers began as bootleggers and graduated to suppliers of drugs to the local community but the local police seem unable or unwilling to move against them. Following Suzanne and Gus' disappearance, Gus' brother Maurius believes Will is informing on the Netmakers and his business partners to the police. Further, Maurius and his associates are searching for the two runaways as they have stolen from the cartel.

Upon this structure Boyden explores the options open to the First Nation Peoples in the face of this incursion of evils from civilisation. Will fleas to the barren north and begins to live as his ancestors did exploring the traditional ways however he is plagued by his own addiction to alcohol. Annie, in pursuit of her sister, travels south and embraces the modern world, she sheds her tomboy past and becomes seduced by the seemingly easy money and lifestyle of modeling. As Will states early in the novel

'you...put out your gill net and pull in options like fish'

but options are closing in both for the Cree as a people and for the Birds. Neither Will nor Annie can survive in the worlds they have chosen and both return to Mooseonee with violence in tow.

Boyden, who was born into a strict Irish catholic family,draws on his own experiences and that of his family to craft this novel. He spent his summers as a teenager living on the streets of Toronto and at the age of 16 began travelling to the United States on his own. He is himself balancing the two parts of his ancestry, the Irish Catholic with the Ojibwe, by spending part of his time in New Orleans and part in the Arctic Gulf. In an interview with Constance Droganes for CTV he says

'If you don't know your personal history you're doomed to repeat it...We may think the past is something we don't need. But that's not true - not to my mind'

This is an important novel, dealing as it does with matters of cultural, family and personal identity but it does not always convince. Whilst Will's narrative is compelling and vivid Annie's task is made harder by the sterility of her life away from home. Her narrative fails to engage partly for this reason and also because elements of her experience are contrived - fits that are cast as visions, her city Indian 'Protector' (who is brought back to the old ways) and an old Indian mystic figure living on the streets of Toronto. However, these issues aside Boyden has created a fine novel which explores the balancing act of competing identities, as he himself explains

'My heart is part Irish, part Ojibwe. I'm a Canadian in America. I'm grounded by history, and I am inspired by legend.'

'Through Black Spruce' won the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2008 and has been published in the UK this year and is therefore eligible for consideration for The Man Booker Prize. In my view it is one to watch!

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