Sunday, December 27, 2009

Joseph Boyden's Through Black Spruce

I'm working on a post about Anne Michaels' The Winter Vault, but meanwhile, a quick catch-up (story of my blogging life, truly) toward wrapping up this year's reading.

First, Joseph Boyden's Through Black Spruce -- an enjoyable and fairly satisfying novel, a follow-up to his very successful Three-Day Road. I think that I might have enjoyed Black Spruce more if I hadn't already read the latter -- as it is, knowing that Boyden's writing his way to making these two part of a trilogy, I wonder if he will rely on the same literary parlour trick. Both Spruce and Road feature characters who seem to speak directly to the reader through their states of unconsciousness while other characters who share the novels' pages with them must wait to discover their stories. And in both novels, other characters' stories are being told in parallel to the ones spun out of the coma. It's a structure that keeps a reader turning the pages, certainly, but the structural similarity grated, for me, ever so slightly. Still, as I say, satisfying overall, especially in the rich detail of the landscape and eco-system, and in what appears to be a credible and intricate accounting of survival skills, a recognition of a knowledge and wisdom that has not been given much credit throughout our history.

Again, though, there's a parallel structure that I don't think works quite as well in this novel as in the earlier one, a structure whereby a First Nations protagonist goes out into the world beyond his/her community into an experience that invites comparison of two values systems and finds the non-native one sadly lacking. In the earlier novel that larger experience is the horrific one of a World War; in the latter, the pull to leave the community is exercised by the New York city lifestyle of modelling glamour, accompanied by drugs and violence. Perhaps it's my own naïveté but the WWI story seems to reflect reality more than the latter which raises my skepticism about how quickly a young woman arriving in the Big Apple from northern Canada would find financial success as a model.

And final quibble: the various plots are resolved into a very neat bundle of happiness on many levels. While satisfying enough for those who like their narrative arcs straightforward, the story again strains credulity. Not that there haven't been losses along the way, and not that the novel denies life's vicissitudes, especially those challenges facing First Nations people in the 21st century, just that there's a bit too much here that hints at the possibilities of Hollywood. That said, I liked the various characters enough to be pleased that their difficulties have been so well managed. And I'm curious to see what Boyden does with them or, more likely, their descendants in the third and final novel he plans for the trilogy. I'm also curious to know if any readers have yet picked up either of these first two books, and I'd be happy to know what you thought about them.

Tomorrow, I hope to post about Salman Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence, and I still have to say a few words about Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and (even fewer) about Patricia Cornwell's The Scarpetta Factor. Meanwhile, I'm also trying to put together a list of my year's reading which will let me see how close I am to the 50 books I think I must have finished in 2009. And I'm carefully casting about among the possibilities ranged along my desk: which book will be the best choice to see the year out with tomorrow and bring in the new year -- which is a sufficiently pivotal package of words to turn the corner on the decade. . . We shall see . . .


  1. Hmm, I've not read Boyden, but perhaps I might. I always learn about new things through you. I'm interested in what you think of Wolf Hall, just added to my list.

  2. Mardel: The learning-new-things is reciprocal, thanks!
    Wolf Hall is very satisfying -- I hope to write something about it in the next few days, altho' classes start tomorrow so who knows . . .