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Washington Post Book World
Friday, March 27th, 2009
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Through Black Spruce

by Joseph Boyden

Drugs and Violence In the Frozen North

A review by Ron Charles

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, 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 bestseller 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 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.

Ron Charles can be reached at charlesr@washpost.com.


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