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"I'll just keep whispering my story to you"
on April 8, 2009
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 Annie who holds a solemn confessional by his bed. An alcoholic and an accomplished flyer, Will's silent narrative recounts the terrible plane crash that has led to him laying prostrate and in a coma.
Will's life has been awash with difficulties. Marius Netmaker, the local he-man and self appointed bully of the area was only too happy to cause trouble for Will. Marius' brother the no-good Gus vanished to Toronto two years ago with Will's other niece Suzanne, a Cree beauty. Gus was responsible for most of the cocaine and crystal meth imports from the United States and Marius is convinced that Will was responsible for telling the authorizes when the band police on the reserves were unable to do anything about it. Predictably, Marius embarks on a series of harassments, firebombing Will's house, killing his ageing blind bear, and then violently breaking his leg with the end of a baseball bat.
Caught in the jaws and evil machinations of Marius, it's not surprising that Will takes the law into his own hands, eventually propelled by his distinctive sense of justice. Regretting his impulsiveness, Will takes off to the far north, and to the arctic circle to set up winter camp and to live in the wildness for months with only the white flocks of snow geese with the late sun dancing off their feathers, and the harsh winter for company. Contrasting with Will's self-imposed isolation is Annie who goes south to find Suzanne. But for Annie the big city proves to be a strange combination of excitement and ruthlessness. Suzanne is impossible to find, and the rumors that she was constantly in thrall to Gus, seem follow Annie wherever she goes.
A capable, intelligent and beautiful girl, who battles painful seizures, Annie cannot help but be transformed by the seductive pleasures of her sister's modeling colleagues. Even as she takes ecstasy with her friends Eva and Violet and dances the nights away in underground discos, lost in their world, this place of late, late nights at different clubs, treated like a starlet whenever she's with Suzanne's model friends, she begins to take on the characteristics of Suzanne. Wined and dined by a handsome DJ, she eventually obtains a modeling contract of her own in New York, falling into an affair with Gordon, a streetwise Cree who she picks up on the streets of Toronto, and who ultimately becomes her protector and the voice of reason for her tattered conscience.
Even as he lies hovering and close to death, Will seems to worry for Annie and Suzanne, a man of the earth, born from hunters and a trapper and feeder of mouths, the shiny magazines with the pictures of a naked Suzanne are the only link Will has of his beloved niece. Even as he pours himself another rye and ginger, he descends into a useless broken man no longer able to do what he pleased. Meanwhile, fractured images float in the characters' heads as Boyden artfully unfurls their lives: Annie as she desperately tries to nurse her Uncle back to life, her eight months south, a revolving door of high-fashion models and her friendship with Gordon from the gutters of Toronto; and of Will's burnished, self-inflicted isolation at the edge of the world.
Although a tendency to be Ponderous and flat in places, Boyden's novel accurately portrays the vast beauty of the wildness area of Northern Canada. The gravel roads and the same pocked, poverty stricken faces of James Bay are well contrasted with the noise and crowds and high-priced glamour of the big cities, the twinkling lights of nighttime Montreal - and the Indian community just as strong in both. In the end however, Through Black Spruce feels weighty and cumbersome, as overlong as the cold and dark winters that seem to constantly overwhelm these disenfranchised Indian tribes in this isolated and fragile part of the world. Mike Leonard April 09.