In a voice like a delicate whisper, aging bush pilot Will Bird recounts the
events that led him to be lying comatose in hospital hovering and close to death. As the drama unfolds in Toronto, Montreal and New York, Will seems to be most connected to the remote landscapes of Moosonee, Ontario, near James Bay. Boyden’s novel is rich in description as it circles across generations, telling Will’s story and that of his beautiful young niece, Annie, who holds a solemn confessional by his bed.
Will has tried to hard the beat the terrible odds stacked against him. Marius Netmaker, the local he-man and self-appointed bully, is out for blood and only too happy to cause trouble for Will. Marius’s brother, the no-good Gus, vanished to Toronto two years ago with Annie’s gorgeous younger sister, Suzanne.
The disappearance caused an unprecedented rift between the two families. While Gus was responsible for most of the cocaine and crystal meth imports from the United States, Marius is convinced that Will was the snitch, the one who told band police on the reserves.
Predictably, Marius starts harassing Will - firebombing his house, killing his aging blind bear, violently breaking his leg. Caught in the evil machinations of Marius, Will ends up propelled by his distinctive sense of justice, taking revenge on this terrible man who has made his life such a misery. Escaping the collateral wreckage, Will travels to the far north to set up winter camp, living in the wilderness for months with only the white flocks of snow geese for company.
Meanwhile, Annie holds her vigil by her uncle’s bedside, telling him of her adventure and the excitement and ruthlessness of Montreal, Toronto, and New York as she goes on the trail of Suzanne, who has recently hit the big time as an exotic Cree fashion model. The rumors that Suzanne was in thrall to Gus seem to follow Annie, but even as Annie battles painful seizures, she becomes transformed by the seductive pleasures of her sister’s modeling colleagues. Taking ecstasy with her friends Eva and Violet, Annie dances the nights away in underground discos, lost in these places of late, late nights at different clubs.
Treated like a starlet whenever she’s with Suzanne’s model friends and wined and dined by a handsome DJ, she eventually obtains a modeling contract of her own in New York. Only through Gordon, a streetwise Cree she picks up on the streets of Toronto and who ultimately becomes her lord and protector, does the voice of reason mend Annie’s tattered conscience, and she eventually returns North to be with her family.
Will silently pines for his nieces. A man of the earth, born of hunters and trappers and a feeder of mouths,
his only link to his beloved niece are the shiny magazines with pictures of a naked Suzanne. As fractured images float though these characters’ minds, Annie desperately tries to nurse her
uncle back to life, remembering her eight months south: a revolving door of high-fashion models, her friendship with Gordon from the gutters of Toronto, then of Will as he recalls his burnished and self-inflicted isolation, living his transient life “at the edge of the world.”
Juxtaposing the shuddering impact of beauty versus violence, Boyden’s novel conveys the elaborate details of time and place and of a people who are often marginalized, forced to live on the edges of society with little or no help from the wider world. The gravel roads and the same pocked, poverty-stricken faces of James Bay are well contrasted with the noise and crowds and high-priced glamour of the big cities, the twinkling lights of nighttime Montreal and Toronto. Although Through Black Spruce is hampered by flat prose and an
overly long narrative, the beauty comes from Will, his memories and worries carved from the bitter winters, the pain of his people, and the indelible love of his beloved nieces.