Book Review: Through Black Spruce by Joseph Boyden

    January 12, 2009

    Having read Joseph Boyden’s amazing Three Day Road, I was more than eager to read his second novel Through Black Spruce.    Road was set during The Great War, a time period I particularly enjoy reading about. And, of course, the ending left every reader wondering what had become of Xavier Bird.

    I was disappointed when I opened Spruce, as it is set in the present day and so seemed completely unrelated to Xavier. Nonetheless, Boyden pulled me in with his skillful prose that paints pictures in just a sentence. The first chapter ends with Will Bird talking about his youth: “I was young still, young enough to believe you can put out your gill nets and pull in options like fish.”  I was completely hooked like one of those fish.

    The story is told in alternating chapters by Will Bird, a Northern bush pilot (and, we find out, a son of Xavier’s second marriage) and his niece Annie Bird.  Will is lying in a coma ( we are not at first told why) and Annie has come back home at the request of her mother to visit him. Annie’s friend Eva, a nurse at the hospital, suggests that Annie talk to Will in the hopes that he might respond to her voice & awaken.

    At first, the two stores being told in flashback – Will’s of his life in the North, and Annie’s, of her recent, prolonged travels to Toronto & New York in an attempt to find her sister Suzanne, who has lost contact with her family after achieving super-model status – appear to have nothing in common. Each of the characters speaks without reference to what the other has just finished saying.

    Will’s story includes Marius Netmaker, the “kingpin” of local drug dealers and a family enemy. Marius is the grandson of Elijah Whiskeyjack, boyhood companion and best friend of Will’s father Xavier.  Annie’s story includes her attempt to make a life for herself after returning from the city.

    But slowly, the threads of the stories come together & we see the fabric of their lives – Will’s, Annie’s, Suzanne’s, and the girls’ mother Lisette. Just as the movement of a butterfly’s wings sets in motion untold wonders, so Suzanne’s leaving the North sets a knotted pattern for all of the lives around her.

    Boyden’s writing has been often & highly praised - and rightly so. I may not be able to find a superlative that has not already been used.

    It’s deft & nimble, it captures images & sets them precisely down in a few words, and it finds the cadence of the Northern people about whom he writes. Annie’s “Ever tipsy, me” after having too much wine typifies the softness & frugality of his spoken language passages.  I was as delighted as Violet at this phrase – but for much different reasons.

    If you’ve read Three Day Road, you MUST read this. If you haven’t, then get a copy & read it – and then read this. I rate it a secure five stars.

    P.S. Readers can only hope that rumors are true that Boyden is writing more in this series. My personal wish is that he will fill in the time between Xavier’s return from France & his death. What do you think?

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