Through Black Spruce by Joseph Boyden


The two settings featured in Joseph Boyden’s latest novel, Through Black Spruce, are seemingly incongruous: the hunting and trapping centered life in northern Ontario and the fashion model scene in Montreal and New York City.  But what unites them is the not just the familial relationship of the two Cree Indians whose story they tell (Will Bird and his niece Annie) but the powerful emotions that result from the complex history of their families and their people.

Both Will and Annie are trying to make sense of the past and at the same time envision a way forward; Annie hopes to restart her life by bringing her uncle out of his coma.  What comes out as both share the stories that brought them to sharing a hospital room is a past filled with love, heartbreak, jealous rivalries, tragic loss, betrayal, and surprisingly resilient bond of family.

Boyden’s second novel is loosely connected to his first, Three Day Road, in that it continues the story of the Bird family and some of the passions and rivalries are connected to characters at the center of that story (Xavier and Elijah).  And like that work, it depicts the larger struggles and culture of the Indians of Ontario through a fictional story. But it is really a stand alone work.

At the heart of the story are two mysteries: what led to Will being in a coma in the hospital and what happened to his niece, and Annie’s sister, Suzzane. The narrative follows Will as he seeks to unpack and explain the events that led up to his hospitalization and Annie as she tells her story to Will.

At fist the two stories seems as disconnected as Moose Factory, Ontario and New York City.  But as they unfold it becomes clear that the two are inter-twinned and that Will and Annie are both seeking the same thing: to be at peace with their past and future.

Will is an expert trapper and hunter who has become a somewhat reclusive alcoholic whose only company is his drinking buddies and the old bear he befriends. He understands that he is trapped in pattern that is destructive but he can’t seem to find a way to break out of it.

Annie has learned from her uncle and shares his hunting and trapping skills.  But when here sister disappears she feels compelled to leave that world behind.  And when she gets invited into the world of fashion modeling she is torn between embracing it and building a new life or returning to her life up north.  The search for her sister is the excuse that allows her to postpone that decision.

When Will decides to act and escape the trap his life has become it sets off a series of events that lead to his coma and Annie’s return to Moose Factory. Both Annie and Will hope to find some redemption in new love but violence hangs over their family.  The question hangs in the frozen air: can the secrets and bitterness of the past be overcome?

Judging this novel is as complicated as the story itself.  The “plot” is messy and there is a lot going on in terms of narrative structure and style.  Will narrates from a sort odream state while in the hospital bed.  Annie tells Will her stories jumping from present to past.  As noted above, the settings are very different.

One can read critics and see the points they make.  Take Kirkus for example:

The book, which was awarded Canada’s prestigious Giller Prize, begins unevenly, with a setup much too reminiscent of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient: a history “dreamed” by Cree Indian bush pilot Will Bird, as he lies comatose in a hospital bed, and juxtaposed with the story recalled by Will’s niece Annie, keeping a vigil beside him, of her southward journey to seek her missing younger sister Suzanne, a runaway who became a successful fashion model and “party girl.” Boyden ends it even more awkwardly, with a semi-surprising disclosure about a crime that still pursues Will, and a concluding reconciliation that’s improbable and sentimental … Alas, the Manhattan scenes too often read like inert chick lit.

Fair enough, I suppose.  Although, not having read the English Patient I am can;t make the comparison and I didn’t find the NYC scenes quite that bad.

I will admit that this is one of those works that you have to dive into and let the story gain its momentum.  And I agree the ending is overly-sentimental and seems too easy.

But Kirkus understands what powers the novel and states it eloquently:

Between these extremes, the book is frequently energized by visionary splendor and raw emotional force.


Though the forced, contrived plot almost submerges the novel, the sensuous apprehension of a distant, perilous, ineffably beautiful world draws us in and won’t let us go.

That is my sense exactly.  This is something of a big complicated mess.  And yet it is a big complicated beautiful mess.  And not to sound cliche, but ain’t that life?

I am not really a literary critic so I didn’t find myself stoping to critique the prose or style.  Instead, I felt myself being carried along as the story of this family and their history unfolded.  In a sense both the genre aspects and the literary aspects worked for me.  I wanted both to find out what happened and to enjoy the aestehtic of Boyden’s telling.

Three Roads had a darker tone to me.  Underneath the pain, heartbreak, and betrayal of Through Black Spruce is a belief that the bonds of family and love can really carry us through.  Maybe this is sentimental but I would like to believe it is true.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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