Sunday, January 11, 2009

Through Black Spruce

By Joseph Boyden

Through Black Spruce is a beautifully-written and tightly wound story of a Cree family from Moose Factory, Ontario. It is a contemporary tale of intrigue and violence, terror and beauty, loves lost and love found, but most of all, the family and the strength of the ties that bind it together.

Will Bird is in a coma from which the doctors think he will never emerge. Annie is his adult niece who visits him in the hospital daily, talking to him, holding his hand, refusing to let Will give up.

The story comes out in pieces as Boyden alternately takes us inside Will’s head as he lays comatose, and then to Annie who initially struggles to find something to say to her uncle and then increasingly uses their long, one-sided talks as an opportunity to put voice to her own life.

What emerges is a picture of a family beset by more than their share of troubles, but also a family that has held together with faith and determination. And woven throughout is a rich portrayal of life in Canada’s north, on the ‘wrong’ side of the Moose River.

Boyden strikes a fine balance in the telling. Despair and hopelessness is countered with optimism and liberal doses of wry humour – an elder living on the streets of Toronto hosts goose cookouts under the Gardiner, and has an e-mail address; a drinking buddy declines to take up jogging, saying, “I thought about it, but my truck’s running fine, so I don’t see the point.” His characters are alive, and his descriptions of life – whether alone on a trap line in the northern woods, or living on the streets of Toronto – draw the reader in, until it seems they become part of one’s own experience, not simply written words on the page.

This is a fine novel and a great read. Highly recommended.

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