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Through Black Spruceby Joseph Boyden
2008 Giller Prize Winner
"The winner of the 2008 Giller Prize, Canada's top literary award, has just been released in the United States, where I suspect the response will be mixed. Much of this novel reflects its crisp, poetic title, but overall the quality of Through Black Spruce wobbles erratically, and what's weakest about the book is its depiction of what we know best: American depravity." Ron Charles, The Washington Post Book World (read the entire Washington Post Book World review)
Synopses & Reviews
A haunting novel about identity, love, and loss by the author of Three Day Road
Will Bird is a legendary Cree bush pilot, now lying in a coma in a hospital in his hometown of Moose Factory, Ontario. His niece Annie Bird, beautiful and self-reliant, has returned from her own perilous journey to sit beside his bed. Broken in different ways, the two take silent communion in their unspoken kinship, and the story that unfolds is rife with heartbreak, fierce love, ancient blood feuds, mysterious disappearances, fires, plane crashes, murders, and the bonds that hold a family, and a people, together. As Will and Annie reveal their secrets — the tragic betrayal that cost Will his family, Annie's desperate search for her missing sister, the famous model Suzanne — a remarkable saga of resilience and destiny takes shape. From the dangerous bush country of upper Canada to the drug-fueled glamour of the Manhattan club scene, Joseph Boyden tracks his characters with a keen eye for the telling detail and a rare empathy for the empty places concealed within the heart. Sure to appeal to readers of Louise Erdrich and Jim Harrison, Through Black Spruce establishes Boyden as a writer of startling originality and uncommon power.
"Following up on the success of Three Day Road, Boyden delivers the powerful story of former bush pilot and Cree native Will Bird. The novel opens with Will in a coma, with his niece Annie, who just returned from an eight-month excursion in search of her sister, by his side. Narrated by Will and Annie, the story backtracks to tell of Will's fight to keep his bush-country Indian life alive and protected while he suppresses painful childhood memories (and befriends an old bear). Annie, a skillful hunter and animal trapper, dictates her escapades after rushing off to New York City in pursuit of her sister, Suzanne, a model who has shacked up with a member of the narcotics-smuggling Netmakers family. As Will struggles to survive and Annie reintegrates into the isolated bush, the two stories dovetail as the Netmakers cross paths with Will. Though the incongruously melodramatic denouement doesn't fit with the richly textured narrative preceding it, the novel as a whole is an intelligent, multilayered accomplishment, and well worth reading." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
The winner of the 2008 Giller Prize, Canada's top literary award, has just been released in the United States, where I suspect the response will be mixed. Much of this novel reflects its crisp, poetic title, but overall the quality of "Through Black Spruce" wobbles erratically, and what's weakest about the book is its depiction of what we know best: American depravity. The author,... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) Joseph Boyden, is a Canadian of mixed Native heritage who teaches at the University of New Orleans. His novel is a striking reflection of Canadian anxieties, particularly the fear of contamination by the United States, that cesspool of murder, narcotics and Oprah that lurks south of the border. Boyden's previous book was the best-seller "Three Day Road" about a First Nations sniper who fought in a Canadian regiment during World War I, and "Through Black Spruce" picks up two generations later with that soldier's 55-year-old grandson, a Cree named Will Bird who lives in Moosonee, Ontario, near James Bay, "on the edge of the world." The story comes to us as two intertwined monologues. Will spends the novel lying comatose in a hospital bed, but we follow his thoughts as he recalls the violent months that led him to this near-death condition. Despite being unconscious, he's a thoroughly engaging storyteller, a charming alcoholic who worked for years as a bush pilot and rarely lets on how much he suffers from guilt and grief. "I'll just keep whispering my story to you," he says, "in the hopes you will hear even the echo of it and that it somehow feeds you just a little." That wry, self-deprecating voice lulls us through a series of adventures alternately sweet and harrowing. Will's most recent troubles started when his gorgeous niece Suzanne got involved with the brother of a local drug dealer named Marius, who imports cocaine and crystal meth from gangs in the United States. Suzanne started modeling in Toronto and then New York, but when she vanished completely, Marius became convinced that Will was slipping information to the police. Will speaks with the straight-faced good humor of Louise Erdrich's Nanapush, whether he's describing his efforts to get back in shape or his affection for an old bear that comes rumbling around the house, pulling on Will's sympathies. But other scenes convey his sweaty fear while being stalked by thugs chanting, "Snitches die like witches." Way up here near the Arctic, government teachers who once tried to grind away the native culture have been replaced by drug dealers who impoverish and enslave the First Nation people. With infuriating condescension the local police complain that "Indians are the perfect buyers of drugs with (their) easy government money and predilections for dependency." In a moment of despair, Will confesses, "There are no heroes in this world. Not really. Just men and women who become old and tired and lose the strength to fight for what they love any longer." In the novel's most moving section, Will flees even farther north to live alone in wilderness few people ever see. It's an experience beautifully rendered in the raw poetry of Boyden's prose. "Bush life is simple," Will says. "Repetitive. My father knew that only three necessities exist in the bush. Fire, shelter, and food. You dedicate your every waking moment either to the actual pursuit or to the thought of these three things. ... I slowly became wild like a rabbit or a bear, living in the ground, emerging each morning to hunt and to prepare." There are richly drawn scenes of him coming upon a whale skeleton on the beach and watching a polar bear fall through the ceiling of his little hut. But this is no celebration of natural man. Away from the threat of Marius, Will's inner demons rise up: "Loneliness grew like moss out there, crawling onto my legs and onto my arms. Each morning that I woke, it had crawled up a little further," he says. "Soon it would cover me entirely so that I was camouflaged, invisible to the rest of the world, and so I talked to the trees and to the whisky jacks that had made a home near my own." This is powerful and powerfully told, but the novel as a whole is weakened by the other story running through Will's. Alternating with his chapters are those narrated by Suzanne's older sister, Annie. While sitting by his hospital bed trying to coax him back to consciousness, Annie tells her uncle about her adventures in Toronto and New York when she went to look for her lost sister. There are several odd missteps here, variations on the "mystical Indian" cliche that has stalked Western literature for many moons: Annie periodically endures epileptic seizures that are cast unconvincingly as visions. In Toronto she meets a homeless Indian dubbed Old Man who makes Orphic pronouncements about her true nature and her future. He assigns to her a hunky mute Indian who materializes at crucial moments to save her as she slips into the world of designer drugs and modeling that swallowed her sister. The corniness of these scenes is exacerbated by the blandness of Annie's description of her high life in New York. Supermodels, designer clothes, exclusive clubs, pricey narcotics, all this could be deliciously salacious or movingly bleak, but here it seems flat and abstract. Annie gets it partially right when she says, "Our family doesn't do well down south. ...The world becomes an ugly, difficult place." Worse than ugly or difficult, it becomes a dull, colorless place, and too much of this story is set there to consider "Through Black Spruce" Canada's best of the year. (What about Gil Adamson's "The Outlander," one of The Washington Post's top five novels for 2008?) If only "Through Black Spruce" had stayed in Ontario with Will, Boyden's novel would have made a more successful import. Charles can be reached at charlesr(at symbol)washpost.com. Reviewed by Ron Charles, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Though the forced, contrived plot almost submerges the novel, the sensuous apprehension of a distant, perilous, ineffably beautiful world draws us in and won't let us go." Kirkus Reviews
"Boyden, author of Three Day Road (2005), spins a mesmerizing double narrative, taking readers on an often-dark journey of the spirit and the soul." Booklist
"Will's and Annie's linked stories, full of many eccentric characters, attest to their family's future survival despite all the misfortune and heartbreak. Boyden writes with unassailable authenticity." Library Journal
This work from the author of Three Day Road finds Will Bird, a legendary Cree bush pilot, lying in a coma. His niece has returned from her own perilous journey to sit beside his bed. Broken in different ways, the two take silent communion in their unspoken kinship.
A haunting novel of love, identity, and loss-from the internationally acclaimed author of Three Day Road
Beautifully written and startlingly original, Through Black Spruce takes the considerable talents of Canadian novelist Joseph Boyden to new and exciting heights. This is the story of two immensely compelling characters: Will Bird, a legendary Cree bush pilot who lies comatose in a remote Ontario hospital; and Annie Bird, Will's niece, a beautiful loner and trapper who has come to sit beside her uncle's bed. Broken in different ways, the two take silent communion in their unspoken kinship, revealing a story rife with heartbreak, fierce love, ancient feuds, mysterious disappearances, murders, and the bonds that hold a family, and a people, together. From the rugged Canadian wilderness to the drug-fueled glamour of the Manhattan club scene, this is thrilling, atmospheric storytelling at its finest.
About the Author
Joseph Boyden is Instructor of English at the University of New Orleans. He has published short fiction in Black Warrior Review, Cimmaron review, Blue Penny Quarterly, and Green Hills Literary Lantern, along with a collection of short stories, Born with a Tooth (2001).
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