Shadow Giller: Joshua Whitehead’s Jonny Appleseed (2018)

In Short presents a 300-word and spoiler-free summary, intended to have a broad appeal; In Detail focuses on one aspect of the book which I found remarkable, which might interest those who have already read the book or those with an interest in the mechanics of writing; In Other Words contains links to thoughts on the book by other Shadow Jury members.

In short

Jonny’s life story unfolds in a dark and confined space: short-term escapes into drugs and alcohol, even shorter-term hookups for cash or a quick release, and a simmering sense of futility and helplessness underneath it all. The world is the “grungy yellow of cigarette-stained fingers”, the rapids are “full of Lucky cans and severed hands and oak leaves that clogged our drain pipes” and there are hairs stuck to the bathtub’s sides and perimeter.

This is a messy and uncomfortable place to inhabit. “Yeah, an NDN home is like a dandelion: pretty but disposable, and imbued with a million little seeds that dissolve into wishes for little white hands that pluck.”

Home is at the core of this first-person narrative, not only because Jonny is coming of age, but because he has inherited the legacy of trauma perpetrated against generations of indigenous people, the historic and ongoing efforts to separate native peoples from their homelands – to isolate and eradicate individuals and cultures.*

Such a brutal blow necessarily affects an individual’s sense of security and the likelihood of survival. Watching a pigeon attempt to make a nest on a windowsill, Jonny observes: “We are both two queer bodies moving around in spaces that look less like a home and more like desperate lodgings; both trying to make our beds with other people’s garbage.”

But there is also a woodpecker who “sits high on a tree and riddles the trunk with a beat that dubs the round dance”, a kiss with a “mouth as warm as bathwater” and, above all, there is a grandmother. A grandmother who sees and names and accepts:  “Jonny, m’boy, your kokum old but she ain’t dull. You’s napêwiskwewisehot, m’boy, Two-Spirit. You still my beautiful baby grandkid, no matter what you want to look like or who you want to like.”

*In detail

Jonny has a clear understanding of home. This is something many indigenous youth do not have (whether because family members were caught in the Residential School system, in the Sixties Scoop, or were separated from family members who were unable to parent because they were coping with the trauma they – or their elders – experienced in or around those systems). Jonny’s descriptions of his aunty’s house are warm (literally) and even when the wind blows, her company keeps the chill at a distance:

“On the rez my aunty lived a good kilometer or two away from my kokum’s house. I loved visiting her; her house was small but cozy…the scents of old wood and the dry warmth of her oven, the sound of a screen door screeching closed, and crackling branches, the howl of winter winds. She wasn’t much of a talker, but she was one hell of a listener – I would go there and tell her stories for hours at a time. She’d always nod and smile, but when I told her something funny she’d laugh out loud, her whole body jiggling.”

As the description of his Aunt’s house illustrates, Jonny’s language is natural and clear and the story is most successful in a series of scenes. The theme of home and self-awareness is scattered throughout (present even in sucking-soaked hook-up scenes, present by virtue of its absence).

“I breathed in Tias’s scent that he had left on my pillowcases. I guess I was happy for him, Tias could make a home here in Winnipeg – him and his books. I still wasn’t sure that what I had was truly mine. All I had was this bed, this wad of bills – and these cum stains on my sheets, this pool of ectoplasm that proclaimed, ‘We were here.’”

The feeling of fragmentation is appropriate to Jonny’s age and experience, although it does contribute to a sense of pick-up-put-down reading (in comparison to, for instance, Eden Robinson’s coming-of-age story in Son of a Trickster (2017) or Thomas King’s Truth and Bright Water (2000), which are intricately sculpted, although they, too, contain a great deal of darkness and struggle).

And, yet, Jonny Appleseed is a love song to storytelling. Which allows so many of us to find and make a home for ourselves even when we are left to our own devices and must do the work of it on our own. Because storytelling simultaneously reminds us that we are never quite as alone as we might have felt.

“It’s overwhelming to think about all the stories that we’ve made, helped to tell, helped to create – our bodies are a library, and our stories are written like braille on the skin. I wouldn’t trade it for the world; I love the noise, the liveliness of voices that are laughing, arguing, bingo-calling, and telling stories in a too-packed home. In fact, I’d say, that’s my world.”

That’s Jonny Appleseed’s home, and I’m willing to bet it’s Joshua Whitehead’s home too. I’ll be inviting myself over for the next gathering, to purchase whatever that next story might turn out to be, in that process of being and becoming and on and on from there.

In other words

Links to reviews from the other Giller Prize 2018 shadow jury members: Alison, Kim and Naomi (links live when available).

This is one of the twelve books chosen for the longlist for the 2018 Giller Prize, which was announced on September 17, 2018 and selected by the 2018 jury which includes Kamal Al-Solaylee, Maxine Bailey, John Freeman, Philip Hensher and Heather O’Neill. On October 1st, five other books were advanced to the shortlist and one of those will be chosen to win the prize on November 19th. This year I am reading with the shadow jury, with Alison and Kim and Naomi, who have committed to reading this shortlist in its entirety. Jonny Appleseed has also been shortlisted for the 2018 Governor General’s Award for Fiction in English.

2018-10-18T17:47:51+00:00

8 Comments

  1. Kat October 27, 2018 at 2:37 pm - Reply

    This sounds superb! Again, another book I haven’t heard of. I’m interested in narratives about home, from Howards End to Marilyn Robinson’s Home and beyond. This will certainly be a book to add!

    • Buried In Print October 28, 2018 at 11:11 am - Reply

      It would add a real splash of activity to the stack you’ve been reading lately, quite different from the classic territory you’ve been inhabiting. You know, I’ve tried Marilyn Robinson SO many times and just haven’t made it (other than Housekeeping, which I read in the mid-90s, and an essay or two) through. Any suggestions/ideas? I feel like I should love her work, in theory, but the religiosity is maybe just too prominent for my taste.

  2. Naomi October 23, 2018 at 10:41 am - Reply

    I agree with Anne – your review makes me want to read this even more. I hope I get a chance to fit it in!
    A lot of what you said was reminding me of Son of a Trickster. It does sound darker, though.

    • Buried In Print October 23, 2018 at 4:06 pm - Reply

      I’m not sure if it is actually darker (thinking of the later chapters of Trickster, for instance) but it definitely feels darker, perhaps because it’s written in first–person rather than third, so that the main character’s experience is immediate and visceral?

  3. annelogan17 October 18, 2018 at 3:08 pm - Reply

    This was a really lovely review, it makes me want to read the book so bad! Too bad it didn’t make it on the shortlist, I was quite surprised actually.

    • Buried In Print October 18, 2018 at 5:03 pm - Reply

      Thanks, Anne. Then you must have been pleasantly surprised to see it on the GG list. I’ve only read 3/5 of those so far, missing Sarah Henstra and Miriam Toews (an experienced contender)!

  4. A Life in Books October 17, 2018 at 2:00 pm - Reply

    Sad to see that Washington Black didn’t get the Man Booker. After reading your review I was rooting for her. This one sounds promising – I like the idea of a ‘love song to storytelling’

    • Buried In Print October 17, 2018 at 4:18 pm - Reply

      Surely she has gained a lot of prospective readers though, with the shortlisting (and the other shortlistings for Canadian literary prizes). Are you planning to read the Edugyan as well? Wait, I didn’t miss your review, did I? Was it this one or French Exit that you read?

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