Friday, December 4, 2009

Ever good

"My world sometimes feels like a world of loss."
Will Bird

Through Black Spruce by Joseph Boyden (Viking Canada, 2008) 360 pages

In Boyden's phenomenal first novel, which I completely adored, Xavier Bird, a famed Cree sniper, is a returning soldier from WWI who is damaged psychologically and physically. Upon his return from the war, he is cared for by his Auntie Niska, his lone surviving relation, who is travelling through the bush back to their home. Niska shares her personal stories with the silent Xavier and Xavier remembers the traumatic events of the war. The narrative technique in Joseph Boyden's Giller Prize winning second novel follows the style that he adopted in Three Day Road.

This new novel is set near Moosonee in the present day and the dual narrative flows smoothly between the voice of Will Bird (the son of Three Day Road's Xavier Bird), an elderly ex-bush pilot, who lies in a coma for some undisclosed reason, and the voice of his niece Annie who has her own sorrows to relate to her uncle by his bedside.

Annie is visiting her uncle Will in a hospital up north near Moosonee and is encouraged to speak to him to try and heal him so she begins her story with the search for her missing sister Suzanne, a pretty model who disappeared two years before. We hear Will’s narrative as he lies in the coma; he speaks to his nieces Suzanne and Annie about the series of violent events which lead to his coma. Will had been mistakenly targeted to be a snitch by local drug dealers, a notorious family of badass Indians called the Netmakers who were dealing drugs in the reservations.

The dealers and their minions, lead by their ringleader Marius Netmaker, wage a game of terror and intimidation against Will in which they try to burn down Will's cabin, kneecap him with a baseball bat and brutally kill a beloved blind and ailing she-bear that Will has befriended in his loneliness (Boyden writes chillingly that her cut throat was like a "dark smile on her neck").

When Will finally acts to protect himself and avenge the death of the bear he is forced to leave and hide in the bush for fear of retribution. I love the evocative imagery here: the fragile but tough "bird" preyed upon by the "netmakers" who try and ensnare him.

Will has his troubles – both old and new. Will is old enough that he was forced into a residential school against his will and that of his family. His father Xavier, the war hero, is too broken and too old, to fight it. In his dreams, Will climbs the walls of the residential school, “like Ahepik, our own Cree Spider-Man” to rescue the native children. Will is now utterly alone - his wife and two children are dead; he has removed himself from his remaining family (a sister and his two nieces), and the bear he befriended has been tortured and killed. His friends Joe and Gregor are loyal but too vulnerable and old to help him.

Some of the most affecting scenes in the book are of Will speaking to the bear and to his father Xavier’s WWI rifle. Will is not so far gone that he doesn’t recognize the inexplicable weirdness of both of those things. In the bush, where he escapes after his attempt at revenge against the Netmakers, alone on the island of Akimiski, Will finds a kind of peace, a kind of sanctuary, which is short-lived.

He meets an elderly Indian man and woman on this lonely island. They soon realize who he is and what he has likely done and because the old woman has encroaching dementia, there is no guarantee that Will's secret will be safe. He must leave the sanctuary soon. On the island we learn the fate of Will's wife and sons, their horrible demise, and the reason why he gave up flying his plane.

He flees to Ghost River and the strain of life there with winter approaching as well as dwindling supplies seem to rattle an already emotionally shaky Will. He returns home but his past actions against the Netmakers are not forgotten nor forgiven.

Flash forward to the future ... In her conversations with her uncle, Annie tells of her search for her sister who fled Moosonee with Gus Netmaker, the troubled youngest member of the Netmaker clan. This further enmeshes the Bird family with the Netmakers who, it turns out, share a not so distant ancestor.

Annie’s search takes her south to Toronto. She undertakes the journey with some fear saying that her people never fared very well down south in the big city. She comes across a group of homeless Indians on the corner of Bathurst and Queen Sts. who share a sordid corner of an abandoned bank and live under the Gardiner Expressway where the “Old Man”, an Indian elder, cooks goose for Annie and offers advice on how to find her sister Suzanne.

I wonder how much of a fictional construct this is because there is a sizable group of Indian men and women who do hang out there on that very corner – did he just use these people to frame the Annie story in Toronto or does he know them? One character jokes that all the Indians in Toronto know each other (I think the same might be true of Sicilians from Racalmuto in Hamilton).

Annie searches for Suzanne amongst the homeless of Toronto. Attacked and nearly raped on the streets of Toronto by a thief, Annie is saved by Gordon, a handsome but homeless mute man who becomes her “protector” and goes by the name “Painted Tongue”. He follows her to Montreal and New York where she searches for Suzanne's old acquaintances in the modeling world. There she is persuaded to try to be a model herself and here we veer off the tracks a bit in the novel.

Annie slips in easily, and quite unrealistically, into Suzanne's former world of the glitterati of Montreal and New York, a world of drugs and models and clubbing. This is the least interesting, and least believable, part of the story I'm afraid. Annie seems too tough, too tomboyish, too smart, to be seduced by these phonies and flakes in this shallow world. I just don’t buy into it. Annie is enmeshed in a world that is the antithesis of her world up north.

Annie's New York denouement reads like a bad TV movie involving wannabe models, bikers and drugs ... Boyden's writing is sooo much better than this.

When Boyden vividly depicts Annie in her old world near James Bay, after her adventures south, on her skidoo, preparing for cold weather, fishing, slouching into town for supplies, checking out the local townspeople at a dance – she comes alive for us. She is fully formed - slightly cynical, tough, extremely likable. But this more cosmopolitan, urban world seems utterly fake and stereotypical. The too thin models who drink too much and take too many drugs are boring and pretentious – this stuff belongs on episodes of Gossip Girl or the now (thankfully) defunct The OC – not in a book by Boyden who has demonstrated a rare and magical talent in showing us how Indian people live and feel today.

I don’t want Boyden to limit his imagination to issues involving only Indian people (that would be a ridiculous and unfair expectation) but we very much need his voice and other aboriginal voices like it. How much literary exposure do we have to Indian life that is not relegated to history books and tragedies of colonization? We need strong native voices, we need Boyden’s vision.

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