Ever since picking up Elizabeth Hay’s Late Nights on Air almost directly after reading her novel Alone in the Classroom I have been wary to pick up the same author within a close amount of time. For whatever reason, I broke this rule for Through Black Spruce by Joseph Boyden. Mostly it’s because I got swept up in Canada Reads this year and wanted to read Through Black Spruce before I picked up a copy of The Orenda. Also, I was excited to read Through Black Spruce because a friend said that it followed some of the characters from Three Day Road. I didn’t think I could read anything that was as captivating as Three Day Road, but Through Black Spruce has captured my thoughts and I couldn’t put the book down!
Recently I have been reading some of Thomas King’s short stories with my English students and I can’t help but think about Canada’s relationship with Aboriginal people, and, therefore, my relationship with Aboriginal people. Susan Dion writes in her book Braiding History: Learning from Aboriginal People’s Experiences and Perspectives, “. . . most Canadians continue to position Aboriginal people as figures of the past, as people of a make-believe world; and possibilities for accomplishing an equitable and just relationship are jeopardized” (Pg 5). I think that this quotation sums up why I was so excited that The Orenda won Canada Reads and why I am so eager to continue reading more books by Boyden.
I love stories. In Susan Dion’s book Braiding History(pg 10), she quotes Roger Simon, Sharon Rosenberg, and Claudia Eppert from Between Hope and Despair and these words sum up my thoughts about the importance of storytelling: “The very hope for a just and compassionate future lies, at least in part, in working through the traumatic catastrophes we have inherited.” Although my childhood wasn’t overly catastrophic, I do believe that stories entertain and also help us to share our memories and ideas with others. I remember long family car trips growing up. I also remember my Dad making up stories that passed the time. My Dad is an amazing story teller. He would make up stories while he drove about a Highway Patrol Officer and the people he would encounter. Yet, the best stories were his campfire/late night stories about Sasquatch. Perhaps my keen love of stories and storytelling is what helped me to fall in love with Through Black Spruce. The novel is a series of stories told by two characters: Joe (the brother, the son, and Uncle) and Annie (the sister, the daughter, and the niece). In the book, the chapters alternate between Joe telling stories to his nieces and Annie telling stories to her uncle. The stories are heartbreaking at times, yet they instill within the reader a sense of urgency and intimacy.
Northrop Frye has a lot to say about story telling and as I was reading I couldn’t help but think back to his CBC Massey Lectures The Educated Imagination:
“Literature’s world is a concrete human world of immediate experience. . . the novelist is concerned with telling stories, not with working out arguments. The world of literature is human in shape, a world where the sun rises in the east and sets in the the west over the edge of a flat earth in three dimensions, where the primary realities are not atoms or electrons but bodies, and the primary forces not energy or gravitation but love and death and passion and joy” (pg 12).
Love, death, passion, and joy. Those are the exact words to describe the stories being told within Through Black Spruce. The stories that Boyden presents are from a present-day Aboriginal perspective which allow us, the readers, to experience the pain and joys of life from a distinctly Aboriginal voice.
In Boyden’s story, we learn about the long-reaching effects of Residential Schools through the generations. We see the pain, the repressed memories, the joy of family, and the longing to reconnect with tradition. Even more poignant for me was the story of two “lost” Aboriginal women. Canada has a sad tradition of ignoring missing Aboriginal women. Yet, I believe through listening and through story telling we are listening more. In fact, in BC the Government has decided to give money to the families of several missing women as a way to acknowledge that not enough was done for these missing women. Giving money seems to be Canada’s way to ask for forgiveness and seek healing, yet as Wally Oppal (the head of the commission in the inquiry of missing women) says in the CBC’s article “Money can never compensate that. But the law tries to do its best by compensating the people who suffered losses and money’s the only measure that we have in compensating that loss.” Sadly, the Robert Pickton’s of the country continue to prey on Aboriginal women and Canada continues to not listen to the stories being told. Across the county in Halifax a University student, Loretta Saunders, was studying missing Aboriginal women and went missing. The entire country listened to this story because here was an Aboriginal woman researching missing Aboriginal women and she, herself, went missing. The entire country felt the pain and the irony of Loretta’s disappearance and mourned with the family and the community when her body was found.
I am grateful to Boyden. He breaks the cycle of missing women in his novel and allows the readers to see the importance of the missing women in Through Black Spruce. The entire community is broken and having the missing women come back into the community brings healing, literally. I am left thinking about something that Frye wrote in The Educated Imagination: “in literature you don’t just read one poem or novel after another, but enter into a complete world of which every work of literature forms part” (39).
My hope is that as more people read Boyden’s work they gain a better understanding of the love, death, passion, and joy of Canada’s Aboriginal people.
I can’t wait to get my hands on Boyden’s The Orenda, even though I just read Through Black Spruce. I don’t think I need to wait!
“I push myself up to rise, don’t have the strength, but I’ll be fine. The hands of my family reach out to help me” (Through Black Spruce, Boyden, pg. 359).
God puts the fallen on their feet again (Psalm 147:5).