Book Review: Through Black Spruce by Joseph Boyden

Through Black SpruceThrough Black Spruce by Joseph Boyden

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Moosonee. End of the road. End of the tracks,” declares Will Bird, a Cree bush pilot lying broken in a hospital bed in this end of the tracks village in northern Ontario. He weaves his story silently, his voice imprisoned by his comatose state. Moosonee is remote, rugged, its Cree Nation inhabitants largely self-sufficient; it is also vulnerable. Poverty fuels drug and alcohol addiction. Those who do leave the community for the excitement and economic opportunity of Toronto or Montreal often fall prey to the cities’ darker sides.

This is a world of deep and disturbing contrasts. The great beauty of Ontario’s bush, the tightly-knit community that watches over its own, the commitment to holding on to an independent life are set against the violence of survival, the turning away from First Nations’ traditions and the glamour and degradation of shining and sinister cities.

Will is the son of Xavier Bird, the WWI sharpshooter whose story was told in the extraordinary Three Day Road. Although it is not necessary to have read Three Day Road to be fully engaged in Through Black Spruce, it provides considerable context as Will reflects on his past and considers his motivations. It also gives a broader historical perspective on Will’s tribe and the experience of First Nations’ people in the region.

Will takes us back through his recent history, explaining in tones that are unsentimental but often contrite, rueful, self-effacing and hilarious, how he came to this hospital bed. His story is the heart and soul of this novel. His sweet honesty charms, whether it is the stumbling jogs he takes along a dirt road, trying to shuffle off his mid-life beer belly, the ill-advised shine he takes to a blind and deaf “dump” bear, his halting romance with a childhood friend, or his multiple attempts to quit drinking. Most tender is his great love for his nieces, Annie and Suzanne.

Suzanne has vanished. Her beauty and wild spirit launches her into a lucrative modeling career, but somewhere along the way she mixed in with the unscrupulous. Her missteps lead directly to the hospital where her uncle now lies, unresponsive and shrinking. Annie, her less-lovely but fiercer sister, undertakes an Odyssean journey to the great cities of the south to find her.

Annie’s story intertwines with Will’s. Both narratives are rich with themes of grievous errors, the search for redemption, the struggle to balance old ways with new pressures, and the reluctance to believe they are worthy of love. I struggled, however, to connect with Annie’s experiences as she shimmers on the edges of the model-and-club scenes in Toronto, Montreal and New York City. She is too easily seduced by the glamour, the drugs, the money. Instead of finding her sister, Annie becomes her. The scenes border on the melodramatic as the world outside of Moosonee, particularly the United States, is portrayed as unrelentingly corrupt and dangerous. Annie is trailed through each city by a homeless, internet-savvy mute Indian, Gordon, whose chiseled torso and ropy muscles save Annie at every turn. Annie is able to return the favor as the two return north to the protection of the clan and Annie becomes teacher-guide to Gordon. Although his presence is odd, Gordon embodies a vision of the modern Indian returning to his cultural roots, to learn and embrace the old ways as he cleanses his soul of the corrupt contemporary world. He is a far more intriguing character than Annie’s other new pals: models and it-crowd sycophants – who are ciphers that add little to Annie’s development or to the plot thread of Suzanne’s disappearance.

But Boyden’s skill as a storyteller propels the reader through these incongruous passages. The constantly-shifting narrative maintains a taut pace. The events – whether jolting or endearing – are unexpected and drive you to turn each page. The central characters are brought to life with vivid description and fine dialogue. You ache for their salvation. This is an immensely satisfying read by a supremely gifted writer.

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Book Review: Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden

Three Day RoadThree Day Road by Joseph Boyden

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Xavier Bird, a young Ojibwa from the Moose Cree tribe in northern Ontario, returns to Canada from the Europe’s Western Front in the summer of 1919. He is alone, in unimaginable pain from an amputated leg, addicted to morphine, and dying from a spirit broken by the nightmare of war.

Carrying him home in her dugout canoe is his aunt Niska, an elderly medicine woman who has lived on her own in the bush since escaping a Catholic boarding school in her teens. Through a twisting, dreamlike journey of words and images we follow Xavier and Niska on a three-day river trail home. The journey takes us through the years of these characters’ lives. To distract Xavier from his pain and to quell her own anxiety over his addiction and the emotional wounds that she cannot heal, Niska recounts her childhood as European settlers closed in on her tribe’s ancestral territories. She reveals how she survived and thrived on her own, fell in love with a French trapper, learned to use her healing and divining powers, and how she saved Xavier from subjugation at the hands, whips and rum of white settlers.

Xavier crossed the Atlantic as a Canadian Army private with his best friend, Elijah Weesageechak (“Whiskeyjack” to non-Cree speakers). Elijah had spent his early years at a Catholic boarding school and is fluent in English, but ignorant of his tribe’s hunting, tracking and survival skills. He is reclaimed by the Cree forest and comes of age with Niska and Xavier. Xavier is a patient teacher and Elijah a crack student. By the time the young men arrive in Europe, their marksmanship skills are renowned. They are selected to train with an elite group of snipers. Xavier is soon overshadowed by Elijah’s charisma and ego but the two remain a team during their nearly two years on the battlefields of France and Belgium. Why Xavier returns to his homeland alone becomes the thread of tension that reverberates keenly to the final pages.

This is a beautifully written yet brutal novel. Each modern war has its unique horrors. Three Day Road mires the reader in the muck of World War I trench warfare as bodies pile in corners, lice pulse in clothing seams, and toes rot black with trench foot. Boyden spares no detail of hand-to-hand combat, of the blood-lust that becomes the sole means of emotional survival for some soldiers, of the ache for the relief of morphine. The devastation is so relentless, you understand any soldier’s break with reason, you feel their uncontrollable rage and their sense of hopelessness as they accept that each moment may be their last.

It is Boyden’s amazing storytelling ability and his skills in pacing and tension that keep the gore from overwhelming the narrative. The characters who ripple through bring life and dimension to the battlefields, farmland, forest and hearths of Europe and Canada. This is historical fiction at its finest: a scholar’s command of factual detail balanced by a storyteller’s heart and passion. Niska provides us with an historical context, telling the story of northern First Nations in the early part of the 20th century. Xavier’s story is the eternal lesson that nothing good comes of war, a lesson we seemed destined to repeat and fail at least once each generation.

I’m glad I waited a few more days to compile my Best Reads of 2011 list. Three Day Road will surely appear in the top ten.

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