Early on in Through Black Spruce, the follow-up to Joseph Boyden’s bestselling first novel, Three Day Road, former bush pilot Will Bird reflects on a recurring dream he used to have some 30 years ago. In his dream, Will climbs the wall of the residential school near Moosonee, Ontario, “like Ahepik, our own Cree Spider-Man” to rescue the native children who’ve been taken from their parents and effectively imprisoned there. Not only does the image resonate with Canada’s recent – not to mention long-awaited – public display of remorse over past treatment of First Nations peoples, its implications are scattered like ash through the whole of the novel. There is no explicit reference made to the psychic trauma born of physical and sexual abuse, only the evidence of conflagration, only aftermath.
The death of traditional ways of life is a running theme here. As Will’s niece Annie (the book’s other narrator) points out, the Cree inhabitants of their area have “gone from living on the land … hunting, trapping, trading in order to survive, to living in clapboard houses and pushing squeaky grocery carts up and down aisles filled with overpriced and unhealthy food.” They have, in terms of a colonial mindset, become “civilized.”
Beyond such insidious decline, the community of Moosonee is plagued with drug problems. The Netmakers, a local family, bring cocaine and crystal meth into town using their underworld connections. At the outset of the novel, Annie’s younger sister Suzanne has run off with Gus, youngest of the Netmakers clan; having established herself as a model in New York City, she has since disappeared.
Annie’s quest to find her lost sister is a further study in cultural politics, and on the level of the individual, a study of the formation of identity. As Annie finds herself shedding her tomboy past and slipping into her sister’s role of “Indian Princess” in New York, her uncle grapples with the Wendigo of memory that threatens to consume him.
Boyden is definitely a gifted storyteller. His narrative progresses with practiced ease until, very near the end, it falters in a climax that is pure melodrama – after which, I’m sad to say, the story unravels into a threadbare epilogue: a disappointing finale that does little justice to the rest of the novel.