Black Apple / Joan Crate
Toronto: Simon &; Schuster, c2016.
This novel, set in the 40s & 50s, is written with good intent: to shine a light on the residential school system in Canadian history. It features a young Cree girl being torn from her family and placed in a school run by nuns, with the kinds of terrible things happening that we've all heard about now.
I thought it was an okay read -- certainly one with strong and timely content. However, I found the writing to be a little bit surface oriented, where there was great opportunity to go a little deeper and show the inner life of these characters fully.
Sinopaki aka Rose Marie is taken to residential school at a young age, and feels bereft of her family, who are so far away that she can't see them often, even for holidays. She begins to form an attachment to Mother Grace, and finds that she has a skill for academics. Despite the fact that Mother Grace manipulates her family and Rose Marie's own opportunities according to what she sees as "best", Rose Marie still has a strong connection to Grace even after leaving the convent. This saintly nun doing her best in the face of corruption among priests and church managment seems a little facile; she seems excused from any residential school wrongdoing altogether. I'm not sure I could believe that Grace's long service and exhaustion are a reason for her not to be responsible for what happens at the school she's running.
After Rose Marie's long years at the residential school she feels assimilated into the white culture around her; she get a job in a nearby town rather than return to her family. However, even here she faces racism and violence. But this last section of the book really comes off as a bit hokey and romance novelish, as she meets a nice man at the boarding house who protects her from other not-nice men even as he introduces her to her first sexual experience. And then Rose Marie has an awakening and realizes she must return to her family to understand herself.
The story seemed a bit YAish, with limited complexity or examination of really dark themes. And the romance thread just didn't work for me. I thought the writing was capable, though both stark and overdone simultaneously in a few instances. I think that Lise, a reviewer on Goodreads, captured my feeling about this book when she says " I love Joan Crate's poetry, but find her fiction very thin. She wrote with an agenda, and therefore her heart doesn't speak."
I wanted to love this book; I ended up liking it but having quite a few hesitancies about the way the story turned out. And the title, while referring to the town that the school is in, has unpleasant connotations for me as well. So not a hit for this reader.