December 9, 2018

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Dystopian reservation fiction delivers

Winter is tough even with central heat, fully stocked grocery stores and access to TV and internet.

Now imagine enduring the cold season while cut off from hydro, food delivery, modern communication and in-home entertainment.

Moon of the Crusted Snow tells a captivating story that seamlessly blends apocalyptic fiction with thoughtful social observations.

While this novel can be enjoyed on a surface level for the story, it is at heart an insightful allegory about the dangers of colonialism. In the era of reconciliation, it’s an important read for Canadians.

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Winter is tough even with central heat, fully stocked grocery stores and access to TV and internet.

Now imagine enduring the cold season while cut off from hydro, food delivery, modern communication and in-home entertainment.

Moon of the Crusted Snow tells a captivating story that seamlessly blends apocalyptic fiction with thoughtful social observations.

While this novel can be enjoyed on a surface level for the story, it is at heart an insightful allegory about the dangers of colonialism. In the era of reconciliation, it’s an important read for Canadians.

Author Waubgeshig Rice also explores themes of community, Indigenous culture and family ties in a thriving, small reservation set in northern Ontario.

Readers may best know the Sudbury, Ont.-based Rice as a former Winnipeg CBC personality, or the host of CBC Radio One’s Up North, which focuses on life in northern Ontario.

He’s also achieved recognition for Midnight Sweatlodge, a 2012 short-story collection inspired by his experiences growing up in Wasauking First Nation in Ontario, and Legacy, his 2014 debut novel about violence against Indigenous women.

His third book opens in the present day, introducing readers to Evan Whitesky, a hard-working Anishinaabe family man living on the fictional Gaawaandagkoong First Nation.

Evan and his family work hard to blend traditional culture with their increasingly modern lives.

While Evan, his partner and children live in a modern home and enjoy amenities such as internet and satellite signals, they also hunt and butcher much of their own meat and follow teachings from community elders.

"He’d learned to hunt when he was a boy out of tradition, but also necessity... hunting, fishing and living on the land was Anishinaabe custom, and Evan was trying to live in harmony with the traditional ways," Rice writes.

The reservation’s simple but satisfying way of life is thrown off when the community’s hydro, internet and cellular services suddenly fail and trucks inexplicably stop bringing groceries.

Without communication signals, the community can’t even ask for help. The little news they do get shows that the power outage has spread to the south.

As food and emergency fuel become scarce, sickness and fear grip the community. This worsens when refugees from other affected areas arrive and divide the community between those relying on traditional ways for survival and those falling under the sway of the newcomers.

Rice tells his story in the third person, mostly from Evan’s point of view. His writing style is readable and well-paced.

As in Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 apocalyptic novel The Road, Rice never offers an explanation for the events, adding extra chill to the narrative.

Rice points out the irony of colonial views that Indigenous ways are outdated, and that western culture is superior.

Many younger community members rely on modern conveniences instead of traditional ways of living on the land, yet those who know those traditions can survive anything.

As Evan reflects of their situation, "Now it was critical that they learn how the old ones lived on the land."

Rice overturns many casually held assumptions some people hold about band councils as corrupt and reservations as unsafe.

He doesn’t hide the problems that affect some isolated communities, such as alcoholism, unemployment and unreasonable food costs; Rice portrays this community’s leaders as genuinely caring and innovative.

Similarly, community members, even those with vices, care for each other and treasure their family and friends.

With winter approaching, it’s the perfect book to read and reflect on our own lifestyles and points of view.

Writer Kathryne Cardwell works at the Winnipeg Foundation.

Waubgeshig Rice launches Moon of the Crusted Snow on Nov. 17 at 7 p.m. at McNally Robinson’s Grant Park location.

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