86 of 87 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Captivating - master storytelling
In reading "Through Black Spruce", I found myself intrigued as much with author Joseph Boyden's writing style as with the story itself. The book slapped me with some confusion in the first three chapters, as I realized that Boyden was using a double narrative style, and the majority of the book alternated between the primary narrator - bush pilot and Cree native, Will...
Published on Oct. 19 2008 by John E. Knight
16 of 22 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars "I'll just keep whispering my story to you"
The drama in this novel unfolds in Toronto, Montreal and New York, but the characters' ties to the reomote landscapes of Moosonee, Ontario, near James Bay anchor much of this story. Circling across generations and steadily melding the old with the new, Boyden's novel tells two stories, that of the charming and irascible bush pilot Will Bird and his beautiful young niece...
Published on April 8 2009 by Walter Hypes
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86 of 87 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Captivating - master storytelling,
In reading "Through Black Spruce", I found myself intrigued as much with author Joseph Boyden's writing style as with the story itself. The book slapped me with some confusion in the first three chapters, as I realized that Boyden was using a double narrative style, and the majority of the book alternated between the primary narrator - bush pilot and Cree native, Will Bird and then the other narrator his niece, Annie Bird. The style is an effective method of telling two separate stories of individuals struggling to find their identities - Will the Uncle straddling his life between the traditional ways of the Cree - living off the land and a today's world which seems to be full of personal problems.I am struck by Will the hard-drinker and endless smoker who also is a jogger, and the hunter who also becomes friends with an old black bear. Annie becomes engaged in two extreme living worlds - one the one hand a tomboy who is a skilled trapper, and on the other hand a short stint in the life of being a supermodel. The two narratives have common touch points, and the reader begins to sense the final convergence early, which unfortunately becomes predictable before the end of the story.
Nevertheless, an excellent book, a learning experience about the Canadian northern region around James Bay and the people who live there.
35 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Life in Two Very Different Worlds,
This is a complex and colorful tale that deals with the incredible struggles of a First Nations family's attempts to become reconciled after years of living apart and suffering alone. The novel's main setting encompasses the wilds of northern Ontario where a family has grown up learning to survive by living off the land. As they reach adulthood, the pull of the urban south enters their lives and the family draws apart.The story picks up when an uncle and niece eventually reconnect under very strange and tragic circumstances. The uncle, Willie Bird, is in a deep coma and at possibly at death's door because of a serious plane crash while the niece, Annie Bird, has come home from her desperate search for a future in her missing sister in the jungles of the big bad city. The only tangible connection between the two is through a poignantly silent drawing together of their individual stories as inner emotions and hurts pass through their clutching hands at they come together at the uncle's bedside. Guilt is cleansed and the true spiritual essence of who they are as kith and kin emerges. Everything in this novel is a revisiting of the formative events of their respective pasts as the Willie and Annie draw close to each other in a transcending spiritual bond. Boyden is especially effective in mapping out the journey that native people take from their roots in the wilderness to the fleshpots of the big city in search of an ever-elusive identity. As they talk within themselves, the images of a sordid and unhappy past flash up on the big screen of life and disappear. The reader gets to see what really causes extended families like the Birds to be uprooted and then to come together later in life as only a shadow of their former self.The only triumphal part of this novel is the desire of the main characters to work through their problems and recapture something of the essence of family. It is through the retelling of these misadventures that the uncle and niece confront their failings and move on to enjoy each other. I like this book for its ability to both explore and personalize the psychological and spiritual drama of two very separate journeys and unite them under one tent at the end. Happiness for any culture is definitely bound up in the reassuring embraces of family. Boyden offers a very graphic description of the hardships of First Nations people who move outside the reserve and become separated from kin. That alone makes this book worth reading.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Carrying on the story,
Beginning with Three Day Road set during the era of WWI, the story of the Bird family continues in the modern day. It is remarkable how the author, Joseph Boyden, managed to weave the old with the new, taking the descendants of Xavier and his auntie, Niska into the reality of modern Cree, and human, life. Through the author's choice of language and circumstance we are immediately transformed from the past to the present, a jump not easily taken at first, but growing on you as you read. I don't know how this story plays out for the average reader, but for those of us familiar with the Cree: Elders and culture, drugs and hopelessness, dreams and reality: this story, coming from a Metis, is touched with genius and artistry. I don't know what he will do for the third story of the trilogy and it will be difficult to wait! For now, enjoy the travel.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Haunting and Powerful,
To read Joseph Boyden's Through Black Spruce is to peer through a window into a quintessentially Canadian, and poignantly Northern Ontarian world. The novel, which explores human descent into revenge, violence and brutality, illuminates the rich and often desperate lives of the Cree and Ojibwa nations who, against all predations, still pursue traditions and lifestyles that in the end are their salvation and legacy.
The voice Boyden's uses is stark, simple, elegantly First Nations, and because of that acts as a sharp foil to the darker, convoluted story that is told through the dual voices of Annie and Will Bird. Each of them attempt to rescue the other through their stories and through the raw honesty of their experiences. In some ways, the dual-narrative acts as confessional, so that the reader understands that beyond the sharp edges of their actions, and the crimes committed by and upon them, there is in fact the mitigating grey of justice no court of law can assess.
Through all of this is a high-strung, fever pitch tension that nearly screams at you to flick to the next page and the next, so that you find yourself breathless and anxious, dare I say it, even obsessed by the haunting quality of this story.
More than deserving of the Giller Prize, Through Black Spruce is an excellent read, and worthy of the investment of time and emotion.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Gorgeous storytelling,
[Cross-posted to LibraryThing and LivingSocial]
Being a visual person, I'm not normally a fan of audio books. I like to see the words on the page. But as I was reading Through Black Spruce, I really wished that I could listen to it instead. Boyden's writing flows so beautifully it's almost like poetry. He writes as if he means for it to be read aloud. It's just simple, gorgeous prose that makes you slow down and think about the words and images being created.
Through Black Spruce is the second book, following Three Day Road (while not necessary to have read it first, I'd highly recommend it), in what will be a trilogy. While Three Day Road took place during WWI, this novel is set mostly in the present day. As with Three Day Road, I think Through Black Spruce does a good job of emphasizing the interconnectedness of all things: our human relationship with nature, our relationships with each other, how our actions can have consequences far beyond anything that we might foresee.
The story is told using alternating narrators: Will Bird (Xavier's son from Three Day Road) and his niece, Annie. I felt for all of the characters and was drawn into their stories, but it didn't keep me up at night and it often felt like something was missing. I think this was because I was expecting something as intense as Three Day Road was, but much of the suspense and tension there came from the fact that there was a war going on so it was probably not realistic to expect the same here.
In any case, Boyden is an incredible story teller and I'm really looking forward to finding out where Boyden takes us next with this series.
37 of 42 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars beautiful and haunting,
I read Three Day Road a couple of years ago and it immediately became one of my favorite books. Since then, I have regularly checked for updates as to when another Boyden novel would be released...
Once again, I've been blown away. A beautiful and haunting book that will stay with you long after the last page. Believable details and the tragic, yet lovable characters made for an intense story. I, honestly, could not put this one down.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "For me history is right there on my shoulder looking at the world with me...,,
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This review is from: Through Black Spruce (Paperback)
"...We may think the past as something we don't need. But that's not true - not to my mind." *)
History is front and centre of Joseph Boyden's second novel, "Through Black Spruce". Loosely a follow-up to his first, Three Day Road - the story of two young Cree trackers fighting in World War I - this story looks at history in a very personal, intimate way. Will and Annie Bird, the two narrative voices, are the son and granddaughter of Xavier Bird, one of the three central characters in the earlier book. Distinct in their approaches to their individual story, told in alternating chapters, they are also intricately connected. As the two "confessions" to each other unfold, they increasingly interweave into one multi-layered tapestry.
Will, an experienced trapper and bush pilot, lies in a coma in the hospital of Moosonee, a James Bay community in northern Ontario. Very soon we realize that only one of two possible events can have landed him in this state: another crash with his small bush plane or another big fight with Marius, the bully and controlling local drug lord and prominent member of the Netmaker family. The Birds and the Netmaker families have more than one reasons to be enemies and, recently, much had to do with Will's other niece, the stunningly beautiful Suzanne, who took off with Marius' brother; both have disappeared without a trace since. Annie, recently returned from several months down south, sits by her uncle's side and, speaking softly to his ear, hopes to somehow connect with him and to bring him back to the waking world.
While in his deep sleep, Will's mind is in a state of active dreaming, looking back on his life. Following the twisting and winding ways of memory lane, he digs deep into his past, reviewing and reassessing his hopes and failures, his loves and losses and, eventually the moments of happiness and peace. A sense of urgency compels him to share his life's story and all its secrets with his two beloved nieces. Unbeknownst to Annie, of course, who has her own reasons to reflect on recent experiences. After some reluctance to talk to a comatose, Annie in turn describes to her uncle the events of the last months that took her to Toronto, Montreal and to New York City and, eventually, brought her back to Moosonee.
Whereas Will is intimately connected to the 'old ways' and the constant struggle between traditional and modern worlds in this remote part of the Canadian landscape, Annie lives with between the two realities. Tempted by an invitation, she gave in to the powerful lure of the southern world of the big cities, the excitements and opportunities that they hold for the enterprising young. Annie has another important reason to head south. She is following the trail of her missing sister, who, according to rumours, had made it big in the world of fashion modeling. In Toronto, Annie comes across a group of urban 'Indians' who provide her with the first clues as to Suzanne's whereabouts. Following Annie, Gordon, AKA Painted Tongue, is sent by the group's elder on a mission of his own. Through Annie's eyes and experiences we are introduced into both the desolate life of urban 'Indians' living at the margins of society as well as the glamour of fashion models and their handlers, especially in New York City. Still, Annie is increasingly torn between her old and new life. Boyden very skilfully evokes and contrasts the two worlds while not shying away from exposing the shallowness of glamour, the brutality of drug trafficking, the dependency on alcohol or drugs and the human frailties that are found in both societies, in each with different parameters and consequences.
The novel's present is set in the northern Ontario countryside and most of the characters are, fundamentally, grounded in this stunningly beautiful, untouched land, amongst its rivers and lakes, its flora and fauna. Will uses the black spruce as a recurrent theme for the power of the forest that demands respect and admiration - an almost mystical, living element in the mind of the lonely hunter. The strong restorative power of this landscape for those who are open to its natural splendour is empathetically portrayed. Both Will and Annie are deeply drawn to it. One of the most emotionally engaging passages describes Will's survival on Akimiski Island, the largest island in James Bay. Richly drawn scenes of him coming upon a whale skeleton on the beach or watching a polar bear fall through the ceiling of his little hut, bring out the physical challenges and the even deeper emotional ones. These and other scenes, equally beautifully conveyed in Boyden's expressive prose, turn into a realization of pivotal importance in Will's existence and they may bring him hope to reconnect with the present reality.
Boyden's love for the natural beauty of this landscape, his intimate knowledge of the traditional ways of the Cree speak out of every sentence.While showing much empathy and compassion for his charactes, his portrayals are realistic and reflect their complexities. In addition to Will and Annie, who stand out as the most richly developed and engaging personalities, there are others, friends and family, loves of past and present, and while less developed they are nevertheless intriguing and their interactions with the two narrators compelling. There is much dramatic flow and tension in the story, most sections are real page-turners. Overall, this is a well-paced novel that is hard to put down. Some commentators have expressed disappointment with the novel's ending. While I agree to some degree, the conclusion is one of only a few possible and consistent ones.
For me, it is without doubt one of the most engaging and beautifully written novels I have read in quite a long time. [Friederike Knabe]
*) Boyden in an interview with Canadian tv station CTV.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Inviting, Intriguing, Encouraging,
Although reading Three Day Road is not necessary for the appreciation of this book, it does help. In fact, each book helped me appreciate the other. I found that I did not struggle with the cultural differences in this novel as much as I did the first, and so reading it was easier. Perhaps this was aided by the fact that Through Black Spruce was more linear, in its reminiscences.
The story is told by two people. Each one talks to the other, but cannot be heard by the other. Each one shares more than accustomed to sharing.
The story of a missing woman, the search for her, the difficulties charachters experience in both in the native community and in the city, the way the European world invades the native community, the sense of loss and guilt, and the deep love of family all come together to make for a profound and an emotional reading experience. The characters' exploration of self, encourage the reader on a journey of self exploration.
It is understandable why this book won the Giller Prize, and it is easy to recommend.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book,
This was one of the best books I have read in a long time. After reading it I had to go out and get another book by Boyden, which was also good. It was so well written and I couldn't put it down. Although I understand the author is not a native Indian - he certainly knows a lot about them and this book made you have sympathy for them. I loved it
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hard life in Moonesee and The 'Peg,
Joe Boydon is one of the best writers of North American literature going. His tales of the Cree, Métis, and white denizens of Hudson's Bay and Winnipeg, Manitoba take you out of yourself and into a world of hybridity, modernism, and First Nations spirituality. Squalor and beauty, resilience and healing. Try it, you be taken to a new world.
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Through Black Spruce by Joseph Boyden (Paperback - Sept. 15 2009)
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