Thursday, November 18, 2010

Through Black Spruce

When my sisters and I were kids, our parents told us stories about their childhood. We loved the little girl and little boy stories, both because they were almost always hilarious and because having your parent tell you a story is generally enjoyable. We were read to a lot, but there's something about being told a story without any props that really draws you in and makes the occasion memorable. It's that kind of storytelling - the kind that happens only between close family members - that Joseph Boyden draws on in Through Black Spruce, his sort-of sequel to Three Day Road.

Through Black Spruce is all about narrative, and the kind of catharsis that comes from telling your story to someone you love - even if you're not even sure they can hear you. Layering narratives is one of my favourite literary devices, and Boyden uses it to great affect. The novel tells the story of Annie Bird and her search for her missing sister, who left Moose Factory to be a model in Toronto and then New York. Annie's story takes place both in the present, after she has returned to Moose Factory, and in the past, as memories she relates to her uncle Will.

The third narrative stream is Will Bird's. In the present of the novel, he is in a coma, and his story is written as though he is telling it to Annie, although he's unconscious. Will's story is by far the most wide-ranging in terms of the time it covers. He looks back at his childhood, at Annie's childhood with her missing sister, his legendary career as a Cree bush pilot, and at the events that led up to his hospitalization. 

Both Annie and Will have amazing stories to tell. In many ways, they are the stories of everyday: wrong place wrong time, chance meetings, changing neighbourhood, aging, family, loneliness - the list goes on and on really. What makes Through Black Spruce a great novel is that it doesn't stray from what's believable, even the events that seem improbable are always within the realm of possibility; I may never have seen someone eat a Canada goose on the shore of Lake Ontario, but I'm sure there are people who do, or have.

Annie's story takes her south, away from Moose Factory and the life and world she knows. She leaves to find her sister Suzanne, who went missing after starting a career as a model. Annie follows Suzanne's train, from Toronto to Montreal to New York, with her "protector" Painted Tongue, a young Native man she met in Toronto. Annie meets Suzanne's friends and gets pulled into the life her sister had been living. Although she eventually returns home empty-handed, her new understanding of her sister's life disturbs her, as does her brief foray in the same circles.

Both Will and Annie are solitary people by nature, and their respective stories are largely about their attempts to interact with others. Although the interactions aren't always pleasant or chosen, both Annie and Will are learning how to navigate a world they don't want to be a part of but have been thrust into. 

Through Black Spruce is a novel that ranges all over the place, in both space and time, but that's held together by the familial bond between Annie and Will. Although they can't be sure the other can hear them, Annie and Will tell their stories as a way to explain themselves and how they got into the situation they find themselves in. Sitting in Will's hospital room, Annie tells him about her time in the south as a kind of confessional, as if telling the story will free her from the burden of it, not by burdening her uncle, but by implicitly receiving his forgiveness. Will's comatose state allows him to placidly receive whatever he is told, and allow the confessor to feel his non-judgment.

Story telling is a large part of what cements families together, and as much as Through Black Spruce is about problems of violence, Native issues and family, it's strongest message is about the importance of communication. Annie's family first started to worry about Suzanne when they stopped hearing from her, and Annie are both healed, in a way, by the stories they tell. If stories can heal, or teach, or entertain, as Boyden seems to suggest, Through Black Spruce strikes me as a candidate for all three. It's beautifully told and compelling to read, and the voices of Annie and Will will sound in your head for quite some time after you've finished.

Through Black Spruce
by Joseph Boyden
First published in 2008 (cover image shown from Viking Canada edition)

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