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Through Black Spruce

Giller Prize-winner uses humour to examine how we become who we are

By Kylie Taggart

Through Black Spruce
By Joseph Boyden
(Viking Canada) $34

Through Black Spruce, winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, is a great read, once you catch on to it.

Two people are telling each other stories the other cannot hear. Annie Bird tells her uncle Will about her attempts to find her missing sister. Will is in a coma, but the reader hears him explain the events that led to his landing in the hospital.

Author Joseph Boyden is a skilled storyteller. Using humour, beautiful imagery and straightforward prose, he keeps the story moving while examining how we become who we are.

We learn how fear slowly transforms Will as he is terrorized by Marius Netmaker, a cocaine and crystal-meth dealer in Moosonee, Ont. Will, a former bush pilot, becomes too scared to leave his own house.

We hear how Annie leaves Moosonee to search for her sister, but ends up in New York City with a posse of models who party with celebrities and call Annie the “Indian Princess.” She is out of her element and knows it. At one party, she starts to speak in Cree to regain self-composure.

Will and Annie aren’t the only ones struggling with identity. Boyden paints Moosonee itself as a community that has undergone seismic change within a generation; drugs and thugs have replaced the traditional Cree ways. By separating families through residential schools, the church, Boyden points out, is one culprit in this transformation.  Spirituality in Moosonee is a mix of Catholicism and Oprah.

For all Annie’s jokes about a vision quest being a hit of ecstasy before heading to the club, a clear message throughout the novel is that the old ways are a balm to modern troubles. As Will and Annie’s problems add up, they rely more and more on Cree spirituality, and she has genuine visions during her occasional seizures. Will and Annie are at their best when they are trapping, fishing and hunting, using the survival skills their ancestors taught them.

Read this book for Boyden’s skilful prose, the captivating plot and full-bodied characters you end up cheering for.

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