Monday, February 09, 2009

Review: Joseph Boyden's "Through Black Spruce"

Ray Taras, who covers contemporary world literature for the blog, reviews Joseph Boyden's Through Black Spruce (Viking Canada, 2008; US release March 19, 2009, from Viking Penguin):
This second novel does not falter! After his highly acclaimed debut with Three Day Road (2005), which won several book prizes and made it to the shortlist of the Canadian Governor-General's literary award for fiction as well as to the longlist of the lucrative IMPAC Dublin prize, Joseph Boyden has followed up with a meticulously-crafted, suspense-driven story encompassing an extended aboriginal family. The novel focuses on the relationship between an uncle and his niece who are members of one of the Mushkegowuk Nations which live near Hudson Bay (see their engaging web site). Among the clever literary devices Boyden employs to have these characters tell us their stories is one in which the niece relates to her comatose uncle, lying in a hospital bed with the odds heavily stacked against him ever regaining consciousness, details of her trip "south" to Toronto and beyond, in search of her sister. It's a long shot that a novel anchored in hospital room narration will provide gripping and appealing material; there are more tried formulae for successfully captivating the reader. But Boyden chooses narrative designs that are eclectic and decentered, and he has hit his target with them.

Even if the bio on the book jacket is formulaic, making the compulsory reference to an author dividing his time between, in this case, northern Ontario and Louisiana, Boyden's lifestyle choices are more unconventional than that. His professional home is in New Orleans, where he completed graduate work in creative writing, then turned to teaching it. While the city has many unusual nooks and crannies, few are more so than living in a house built on pilings located between the Mississippi river and the levee—Boyden's home for a time. A spiritual, perhaps familial, home is Moosonee--or is it Moose Factory?-- many hours north of the northern Ontario "conurbations" of Cochrane and Timmins, to which it is linked by rail and air, but not road.

Of Métis background with a Toronto Jesuit education that has metastized into Big Easy bon vivant, Boyden derives synergy from the two homes. The authenticity of the voices he records in his novels is incontrovertible. It is not only the syntax the characters use: "Me, I preferred the first option, that Mother Nature was one angry slut" (p.2). It goes beyond the distinctive spoken and written language the Mushkegowuk Nations use. Boyden's inspired writing contributes robustly to achieving one of their educational goals--to "promote and maintain a Cree Vision for future generations through Language & Culture."

Through Black Spruce takes us from a hospital room to the primordial edges of James Bay. It includes a moving characterization of a First Nations' family--grandparents with granddaughters—affirming their traditions, living seasonally by a remote river feeding into the Bay, located in the sprawling tundra that only an experienced Native bush pilot can break down. The lyrics of Neil Young's "Helpless" serve as musical backdrop to these vivid depictions of northern Ontario. Other northern tropes include the first generation of undependable skidoos (as they were called at the time), a prized World War I rifle (representing the extension of the Three Day Road story), goose and moose, and tobacco. Then there is the violence: mostly Indian on Indian, and mostly the product of the drug trade. The novel describes multiple attempted killings, in northern Ontario but also in Toronto and New York. The fearsome Québec biker gangs drive the plot though they remain in the shadows.

The art of learning underpins this novel. Hunting is a skill taught by one generation to the next—uncle Will to his niece Annie—and from one gender to another—Annie to her Mohawk guardian Gordon who comes from Kahnawake, outside Montréal. Without hunting skills, this northern Ontario community would not exist. The general store in the town may sell luxury goods from the south, but it is still a pivot in the centuries-old fur trade that keeps the community intact.

Alongside Will's story of struggle and survival is the other side of the novel's dual narrative—Annie's odyssey in search of her sister. It takes her from sharing in an impromptu barbecue with homeless Indians in the streets and under the railway bridges of Toronto, to the urbane dance bars of Montréal, and eventually to the high octane life of fashion models in New York City. Party Girls International, as the novel's Manhattan supermodels call themselves, represents a pastiche of conspicuous consumerism—an unflattering contrast to the subsistence struggles of Mushkegowok in the backwoods of northern Ontario.

We may be inclined to believe that Manhattan brings out the worst in people even as they enrich themselves, but we do become skeptical about how seamlessly Annie slots in to replace her celebrated sister Suzanne as a supermodel. We never really meet Suzanne and Gus, the man who biked her away from Moosonee to fame, fortune, and danger. Yet thanks to intertextuality we may be able to learn more about the couple: Boyden told me that the two feature in a short story he has published (his first book, Born with a Tooth, a collection of short stories set in the north that was published in 2001, has been re-released). We may not appreciate the Big Apple lifestyles caricatured in Through Black Spruce, but their inclusion enhances the intricate narrative design the author fashions.

Add a new name, then, to Canada's star-studded cast of literary heavyweights. As 2008 Scotiabank Giller Prize recipient, Boyden joins the company of such previous winners as Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro, who also have taken up the subjects of Ontario, the north, and solitude--as did Glenn Gould in his extended radio documentary, "The Idea of North." Boyden's, however, is a First Nations' North.--Ray Taras
Ray Taras, a visiting scholar at Stanford University, is the author of the recently released Europe Old and New: Transnationalism, Belonging, Xenophobia.

He has reviewed the following fiction for the blog:
Per Petterson's To Siberia
Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger
Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses
M.G. Vassanji's The Assassin's Song
3 Works by Dorota Masłowska
Andreï Makine's L’amour humain
Michel Houellebecq's The Possibility of an Island
Emmanuel Dongala's Johnny Mad Dog
Amitav Ghosh's The Hungry Tide

See also: Summarizing Sundance 2009: Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.

--Marshal Zeringue