For the past couple of weeks, I have been listening to Joseph Boyden’s Through Black Spruce on my daily walks.
I was walking in full summer, listening to descriptions of winter in Moose Factory in Northern Ontario.
The clusters of cloud in the story were from the exhaust of snowmobiles in February; the clusters I was seeing were above the maple trees far over my head, the cat-tails lush and the marsh birds chittering.
The early chapters are short, allowing readers (and listeners) to get comfortable with Uncle Will and Niece Annie. He is in the “dreaming world” and she is in the “waking world”; he is in a coma in the Moose Factory hospital and Annie is sitting by his bedside.
Joseph Boyden’s prose is rhythmic, particulary in Will’s voice. “You know I was a bush pilot. The best. But the best have to crash. And I’ve crashed a plane, me. Three times. I need to explain this all to you.”
It’s clear from the start that Will’s journey has been long and hard; he knows a number of ways to enjoy a glass of rye.
Annie’s youthfulness makes her story thinner, her realizations just dipping below the surface, but as she becomes more committed to sitting with her uncle, her story deepens as well. It is not until she is driven to speak her story aloud that she reflects upon the experiences differently, steps back into that river to reconsider where she has travelled.
The emphasis on storytelling is appropriate for a writer who feels an affinity with his native roots (his heritage is Irish and Scottish and Anishnaabe); Will is telling his story to his niece from the “dreaming world” and Annie is telling her story to her uncle from the “waking world”, and the process of telling pulls each of the storytellers closer to another dimension (suiting their different needs and positions).
As single stories, the narratives are interesting, but viewed as elements of a much broader tale, delicately layered, there is an unexpected power here. The ways in which the two narratives dip and bow, brushing into each other’s territories, is mesmerizing. There is an inherent conflict which resides in a tale focussing on two opposing states. There are times in which Annie voluntarily enters the “dreaming world” for a time and, correspondingly, times in which Will darts towards the “waking world”.
But the most compelling element of the novel is where the worlds collide. (The cultural parallels are obvious when you step outside the story but while immersed in the characters’ lives, less so.) And, so, we are forced to consider that what appears to be in conflict is simply a matter of perspective.
The audiobook is just over 15 hours of listening, with performances by James Jenner and Ali Ahn, and I kept the book on my bedside table. When I had finished listening, I reread the final chapters because I wanted to see how things had aligned in print. (This was on a bench in a city park, not walking the trails.) Near the end, there is some slipping in and out of consciousness and I wanted to make sure that I was paying attention to all the possibilities. (There is some repetition in the structure as the novel unfolds, but the narrative does sprawl across time and space, and some of these reminders are helpful.)
Often, I think that I prefer the written word, but in this case, I think I enjoyed this story more on audio; the narration forced me to take time with each character’s perspective and some passages which seem a little trite or glib in print sound sincere to my ears when delivered by the actors. (Both characters are reflecting on some painful elements of their pasts: it makes sense there would be some profound statements.) And the final scene? Just right.
This wasn’t the only time I spent in James Bay recently. I also picked up a copy of the Justice League United: Justice League Canada (written by Jeff Lemire and illustrated by Mike McKone) which I enjoyed on the porch with a cup of coffee (hot, for the first time in awhile).
I am not well-informed as to the ins and outs of the Justice League; it was Lemire’s involvement with the project that caught my attention (his Essex County and Sweet Tooth works being favourites). So clearly I am not the target audience for this series.
More often on Saturday mornings, I was watching Scooby Doo not superheroes, and my experience of devotion to the genre begins and ends with Underdog. (But I did *love* Underdog, if enthusiasm counts.) So I am untroubled by whether returning characters behave credibly, unaware of their status within the superhero hierarchy, and my feathers are unruffled if any element does not suit the franchise overall.
But even I can recognize that introducing an aboriginal superhero to the pantheon is breaking fresh ground. And there is more than one woman in the story too, whereas I only remember Wonder Woman (I did love her, but she was not a cartoon, she was real, like the Bionic Woman was real).
In all, I found the comic entertaining and I briefly considered hunting up some other Justice League stories, but then settled into the rest of my stack, content.
“It is August now, towards the end, and the weather can no longer be trusted. All summer it has been very hot. So hot that the gardens have died and the hay has not grown and the surface wells have dried to dampened mud.”
Now that I have finished my Alice Munro reading, I have pulled Alistair MacLeod’s Island from the shelf. I have never read this collection straight through, but perhaps that is what I will do now. Having opened in the middle to “The Closing Down of Summer”, which is haunting and beautiful.
I am reading on the porch, and the goldenrod is blooming and garish in the back of the yard, supervised by the seemingly superior sunflowers on one side (the other side is dominated by spring flowers, the mint and the lilac, so quiet these days, although recently a new hibiscus has taken hold).
“We are lying now in the ember of smmer’s heat and in the stillness of its time.”
With the talk of the waves and the beach, this story does feel like a Cape Breton tale but, more than that, it is a story of earth and mud and clay.
Alistair MacLeod’s story fits, beautifully and painfully, with my reading of the waking and dreaming worlds, with reading of heroes and dig sites, stories of epic battles and endurance.
This has been a good summer for me.
What about you?