Book Review: Through Black Spruce by Joseph Boyden

Review by Morgan O’Neal

Through Black Spruce is the sequel to Joseph Boyden’s award-winning bestselling first novel Three Day Road, part of a projected trilogy in which two fictional James Bay Cree families (the Birds and the Whiskeyjacks) work out the complex intertwined histories of several generations. Through Black Spruce also took home a fistful of awards, including the Giller Prize, the Canadian Authors Association MOSAID Technologies Inc. Award for Fiction, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, CBA Fiction Book of the Year, and the McNally Robinson Aboriginal Book of the Year, and it was short-listed for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction. The Giller Prize is one of the richest awards in Canada, and Joseph Boyden hopes to use part of the prize money to establish an Aboriginal Student Scholarship Fund. These are, after all, their stories—the stories of their ancestors.

Through Black Spruce takes us to the island of Manhattan, far from the woodlands of the first novel. “It’s my first venture with a novel into the contemporary world, and it’s actually about the grandchildren of characters in the first novel,” Boyden explains. “It’s about a family struggling with another family up in James Bay, and the search for a disappeared family member. The older sister goes looking for her younger sister, who’s disappeared, while the uncle of the two girls stays at home and tries to deal with the fallout from that. It’s all about identity, too, just as the first novel is a lot about identity and how you can lose yourself. That’s one of the recurring themes I’ve been exploring.”

As with Three Day Road, Boyden is in a good position to address contemporary First Nation issues. “I’ve always felt that I’ve got one foot firmly placed in my white roots and one in my Métis roots,” he says. “It allows me to act almost like a bridge between the two, in some ways.” He understands the people he is writing about. “I know these characters so well that I just let them go, and they travel, sometimes to places I didn’t expect.”

The collapse of culture and traditional ways of life is often a backdrop to stories by and about First Nations people. The Cree inhabitants of the community of Moosonee have gone from living off the land, hunting, trapping, and trading to worrying about booze, drug addiction, and suicides. In short, they have been “civilized.” The Netmakers, a local family, bring cocaine and crystal meth into town using biker connections. At the outset of the novel, Annie’s younger sister Suzanne has run off with Gus, youngest of the Netmaker clan. Will Bird, the main protagonist and one of the book’s narrators, flies to a remote island after shooting Cree crime boss Marius Netmaker. Meanwhile, Will’s niece Annie (the second narrator) searches for her sister, a quest that becomes a study in cultural politics and the formation of identity. As Annie slips into the stereotypical role of Indian Princess, her uncle Will struggles with tragic memories that threaten to destroy him.

Unfortunately, Annie’s adventures take her to a New York City that is patently unreal. Boyden, as good a writer as he is, makes the lives of so-called supermodels Kenya and Soleil seem glitteringly artificial. The novel becomes as boring as the lives of these women (one black, one white), and no attempt to turn the novel into crime fiction can save it. Will Bird contemplates his next move, while his relationship with a local bear he is feeding becomes more profound and dangerously intimate. The following passage is a hint of things to come:

“A smooth operator, me. I fixed another drink and went back outside to mull it all over. The ham still sat lonely on the light’s edge. Tomorrow was another day. I considered turning on the tube to watch one of those crime shows. Those things are nice. Always the same. You always know what you’re going to get. Usually a murder and only a few clues, but detectives, they’re resilient. They won’t let things slide. They always work hard and figure it out and the criminal is brought to justice in the last few minutes. Those Americans got it all figured out. Nice and neat. Perfect.”

Boyden’s got it all figured out. The novel plays itself out, nice and neat and perfect. It is a shame that he resorts to such formulaic escapes from the truth in order to resolve the plot twists that have paved the way for major characters to come back to Moosonee. Boyden is a great writer, nevertheless. His story progresses with confident ease until it runs out of steam and coasts to a full stop. Boyden has what it takes to do better. Perhaps the hoopla and hype around his debut novel were too much. Boyden grew up among the people he writes about. He has Irish, Scottish and Métis roots. He owes it to that community and to himself to redeem his reputation for energetic truth-telling fiction and beautiful plain style with a third novel that completes the trilogy in style.

Joseph Boyden has traveled widely in the American South, and has worked at a number of different jobs. He was a band roadie, gravedigger and groundskeeper at a cemetery, a tutor, dishwasher, waiter, and bartender. While living in New Orleans, he received his MFA degree and met his wife, Amanda, a trapeze artist, contortionist, and writer. Following his degree and his marriage, he taught Aboriginal programs on James Bay in the far north. He is also the author of Born with a Tooth, a collection of short stories shortlisted for the Upper Canada Writer’s Craft Award. He now teaches creative writing at the University of New Orleans.