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Books

A harrowing history

Novel a welcome addition to residential-school canon

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/3/2016 (464 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The Indian Act of 1876 set into motion a cycle of suffering that continues to this day. The forced removal of aboriginal children from their homes to residential schools — where they were stripped, often violently, of their culture and self-worth — is now well-documented.

Yellowknife-born, Calgary-based poet and novelist Joan Crate’s story of a Blackfoot girl’s childhood and adolescence spent at a residential school is a strong addition to the body of literature that grows in the wake of this shameful history.

Supplied</p><p>Joan Crate’s use of nature imagery to create Rose’s internal world delineates the dividebetween her protagonist’s cultural values and those of the western European world.</p>

Supplied

Joan Crate’s use of nature imagery to create Rose’s internal world delineates the dividebetween her protagonist’s cultural values and those of the western European world.

Black Apple begins with the heart-wrenching scene of six-year-old Rose being ripped from her family’s arms and dragged off to fictional St. Mark’s Residential School for Girls. For the next 13 years, Rose endures the kind of abuse and neglect most Canadians have only really begun to grasp with the 2015 release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report.

Rose’s quick, bright intelligence is a mixed blessing — it wins her extra attention, but much of it is pointed at scrubbing away her aboriginal identity. Contact with her family is severely restricted, and eventually the lonely void in Rose’s life is filled with a pious commitment to the Catholic Church.

Crate layers the narrative with a mysterious ghost story that effectively magnifies the tension and also provides an opportunity to tell the stories of other St. Mark’s victims. Unfortunately, this also creates confusion for the reader. While Rose comes to understand that the "shadow nun" and "shadow students" who flit past her are the spirits of people who’ve suffered at the school, the reader is left wondering if ghosts actually exist at St. Mark’s or if Rose is hallucinating.

There’s no confusion for the local hierarchy of the church. In a masterful bit of plot development, Rose’s "visions" are seized upon and cynically spun as a sign of God’s forgiveness for sins committed at St. Mark’s; as one priest puts it, "an opportunity to cleanse us of doubt and guilt."

As the priests and nuns reassure each other that the "incredible love and mercy of our Lord has been revealed through this innocent’s vision," we can’t help but hear a likely crisis-management strategy of today’s scandal-ridden Catholic Church.

Crate’s use of nature imagery to create Rose’s internal world showcases her poetic talent and effectively delineates the divide between Rose’s cultural values and those of the western European world into which she’s been swallowed.

Recognizing her father is no match for the Indian agent who takes her away, Rose sees "his colours breaking apart like the reflection of the moon in runoff water." Rose’s experience on the trap line with her parents become a metaphor for her life at the residential school, where she imagines "birds caught in snares" and "four-leggeds escaping Papas traps of steel and pain."

Rose is abruptly sent away from St. Mark’s to serve the parish priest in preparation for her "destiny as a Sister of Brotherly love." She has never been further from her roots yet the language of nature continues to reflect her consciousness. Ultimately, offers of romance and love from two different men, "a bobcat and a rabbit," stir Rose to abandon the church and set out in search of her heritage.

Joan Crate’s novel is less sophisticated than Joseph Bowden’s Three Day Road, but subtler and more poetic than Beatrice Culleton’s In Search of April Raintree. Regardless, Black Apple has an important place on the shelf with these novels, demonstrating the cathartic power of literature to teach, reflect and possibly heal.

Charlotte Duggan is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg.

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