I have once again to thank my Canadian connections for good reading from the north. Through Black Spruce won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, which I guess is sort of the Canadian Booker. And although I don’t know what the other entries were, I won’t argue. Joseph Boyden has written a fine novel here.
The setting is a Northern Ontario village whose primary inhabitants are Cree, many of whom still live with a toe in the hunting/gathering world of their ancestors. Although we spend most of our time in Moose Factory, Boyden takes as far afield as the high-flying drug and modeling worlds of Toronto, Montreal, and NYC. (Side note: It’s amusingly disorienting to read of Toronto as “the south.” Probably amusing to Boyden as well, since he apparently spends half his time in New Orleans.)
Boyden treats the well-worn themes (and real-life facts) of addiction and alcoholism among the natives with honesty and relevance. They are essential to the plot and emerge naturally from the characters’ conditions and personalities, but Boyden does not make them the stand-ins for the white civilization’s oppression. Not that there are no evil whites here, but the characters are responsible for their own lives. And interesting characters they are.
Willy Bird, an aging bush pilot, gets inadvertently involved with a drug cartel whose tentacles reach all the way back to NYC. His whole family is eventually ensnared in the complications, and it’s the unraveling of all the intricacies that keeps you involved as a reader. Willy has his drinking buddies, of course, and a half-brother from the hinterlands who eventually proves crucial to the action. He also has two nieces, model-beautiful but very different, who capture both your affections and your adrenalin.
I think I can guarantee that Through Black Spruce will draw you in and keep you involved from one end of the story to the other. I know I can guarantee you’ll know more about trapping beaver and hunting moose than you did when you started. I have my arguments with the ending, but won’t go into them here for fear of spoiling it. Boyden’s a young guy who deserves a wider audience than he apparently has now. Read him and see if you don’t agree.