The public library waitlist for Joseph Boyden’s books is so long, I knew Through Black Spruce would be good. I am still number 19 in line for Orenda. And now I know why. Through Black Spruce begins with the story of a plane crash. In the first chapter we learn that the narrator is a comatose bush pilot; the coma is not from a plane crash; he implies violence. Boyden shows the whole snowy world that his First Nations characters inhabit; he familiarizes us with the eccentric rhythms of their speech and the practicalities of survival in the far north. He introduces the major themes in the book and gives a glimpse of the recurring title image.
I read those four pages and thought, “Damn. Now that’s how you start a book.”
Lately violence has been a recurring theme in my reading. The Weirdness asked whether it is okay to use physical power to win – is it okay to use force just because you are bigger and stronger? Is it okay if the other person is evil? What if fulfilling an obligation requires it? Is it ever okay to kill? Another book I haven’t blogged about yet examines the absurdity of war and whether it is possible to swear off violence.
At the heart of Through Black Spruce – literally, exactly in the middle – is the decision to commit murder. Boyden doesn’t ask if it is okay, or even a choice. He makes it inevitable. Twice in Through Black Spruce characters step back from murder, and both times those who are spared use their second chance to harm other, less violent characters.
Murder and violence are inevitable, but that doesn’t mean there are no consequences. Those who kill are often killed themselves or are crippled by guilt. Even when murder saves other lives, murderers go to jail. Hunters mourn when animals die.
Nature is the most violent killer in Through Black Spruce, far more dangerous and unpredictable than drug-dealing bad guys. Survival is always on a narrow margin, the border between life and death as permeable as a line of spruce trees. It’s not all fatalism, though. Traditional knowledge can prove as useful in the city as in the bush, and your family can pull you back when you’ve wandered into the trees.
Sometimes reviewing is useful because it forces you to read more critically. But sometimes the best part of the story is the story. Through Black Spruce is a great story.
The feuds are as devastating as anything in Shakespeare or your own family history. The characters are credible and engaging. Native traditionalists, Catholic conservatives, drug dealers, street people, and fashion models improbably mingle in the near-arctic northern wilds, small town Canada, and New York City, but somehow Boyden makes these unlikely travels seem completely natural.
Alternate chapters are narrated by the comatose Will Bird and his fur-trapping niece Annie Bird. The disappearance of Annie’s younger sister haunts them both. Will and Annie are each broken and lost in their own way, and although neither can hear the other, they both find their way home in telling each other their secret stories.
Authenticity seems to be a hot topic in writerly circles. I understand the concern about co-opted experience but the discussion seems a little ridiculous to me – isn’t the job of a novelist to make up stories? A world of memoir would be a bleak world indeed. But it is also a novelist’s job to make readers believe in their made-up worlds, and that is the hard part.
In a book about Native Americans, racial identity is the first point of view that comes to mind, and Natives are the poster children for stolen stories. I have no idea of Boyden’s ethnicity, but he nails the voice of crass earthiness and spiritual woo-woo that I find so appealing in books by Louise Erdrich and Sherman Alexie, who both blurbed Through Black Spruce, and who both also write from a northern indigenous point of view. (This made me realize I have never read anything from the point of view of the southwestern tribes, which led to a google search on Navajo authors and a whole new reading list for when I get back from Iceland.)
But the authenticity question also comes up in relation to gender. The internal monologue of Boyden’s female narrator is uncannily naturalistic. Annie is hard as nails. She has the same bush skills as her uncle because he taught them to her when she was a child. She values these skills for their intrinsic worth and also for their role in her relationship with her father-figure. And she worries about what the wind is doing to her skin while she’s out in the cold repairing her snowmobile. She notices the difference in paper quality between the publications her sister modeled for and the ones she is in. And she falls for men for all the wrong reasons. She only discovers that her sidekick is the better man when it’s almost too late.
And what a love interest, him; silent, sensitive, strong, and gentle; rough around the edges but quality on the inside. She calls him her Protector. He sticks around to look after her even after she rejects him; but he does it in a devoted, steadfast, absolutely un-stalkerish way. If Boyden ever gets tired of literary fiction, romance is a shoo-in.