The shameful legacy of Canada’s residential school system, the church-run educational regime that forcibly plucked First Nations children from their homes in a effort to compel their assimilation into mainstream (meaning European) culture, has been largely ignored in Canada’s fiction, apart from books for young readers. This neglect, combined with the federal government’s renewed efforts to address that ignoble history, makes Joan Crate’s moving new novel, Black Apple, both timely and welcome. Also noteworthy, it’s the first fiction title published by veteran editor Phyllis Bruce since leaving HarperCollins to shore up Simon & Schuster’s fledgling Canadian publishing program.
Set during and after the Second World War, Black Apple is the story of Rose Marie Whitewater, a seven-year-old Blackfoot girl removed from her family and sent to St. Mark’s, a Catholic-run residential school for girls located in rural Alberta. Crate, a Calgary-based novelist and poet of indigenous background, effectively evokes the emotional trauma of the young girl’s separation from her mother, father, and younger brother, as well as the harrowing disorientation of her life at St. Mark’s.
The author communicates the sense of claustrophobia and confinement felt by the smart, spirited Rose Marie, who seems particularly ill-suited to a sedentary classroom governed by the threat of corporal punishment. Through a combination of intelligence and circumstances that require her to board at St. Mark’s year round, Rose Marie grows into adolescence as a model student, viewed by the school’s head nun, Mother Grace, as a potential candidate for the sisterhood. First, however, Rose Marie must complete an apprenticeship of sorts by helping with parish chores in the nearby town of Black Apple.
The novel’s portrayal of the residential school system – spawned, as it was, by a toxic mix of racism and cultural arrogance – is unavoidably disturbing. And Rose Marie’s unwelcome reception in Black Apple doesn’t mitigate her feelings of estrangement. But the flawed figure of Mother Grace, who understands the system’s failings almost as much as she endorses its overall objectives, lends a necessary element of ambiguity to the tale. At best, the road to Canada’s residential schools was paved with misguided intentions. Black Apple illustrates where such roads can lead.