Thursday, March 26, 2009

Review: Through Black Spruce

Joseph Boyden’s follow-up to critically acclaimed Three Day Road does not disappoint. Told from the point of view of alternating narrators Will Bird and his niece Annie, Boyden’s tale unfolds from end to beginning – we see the present before the past, leaving only the why. The two stories are interwoven seamlessly, each narrator providing a unique voice to the events that transpired. Will’s story is about redemption, as he finds his true self among the trees and traplines of his younger self, coming to terms with past events that set his life down a predictable and tragic path. However, he does so while in a coma, reciting the story in his dreams while his family and friends wait patiently for him to wake up. Annie tells her story to Will during solitary visits to the hospital, coming to terms with her past by reconnecting with her roots – the old traplines, the hunting cabin, the ice road. Her life is just beginning – she has yet to make any decision that cannot be remedied.
Boyden gives the physical environment a prominent role just behind the characters, making its place in the story as important as it would be in actuality to the characters. It is part of the way of life for these characters, living off the land. Annie seems most ill at ease when she’s in New York, spending money and dressing to the nines, but when she’s back in Moosonee, living in the winter cabin, trapping and hunting, she’s comfortable. Will, too: he can be ready to live off the land in a short time, settling his affairs and relying on the things he learned from his father. The title phrase “through black spruce” comes up again and again, a metaphor for many aspects of Aboriginal life, from literally returning from the bush and wilderness to experiencing personal revelation and understanding.
Boyden’s beautiful prose style only adds to the gripping story. It is a great read, and he is a great Canadian writer, taking features of the Canadian landscape such as thick spruce trees and polar bears or the effect of residential schools on the Aboriginal population and telling a poignant and forceful story. Four and a half marten pelts out of five.

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