A Review of Waubgeshig Rice’s “Moon of the Crusted Snow”
A First Nations Post-Apocalyptic Thriller
Here’s something that’s a bit of a twist on the conventional post-apocalyptic thriller: one written by a member of the First Nations peoples of Canada, set on an Anishinaabe reserve in a fictitious version of Northern Ontario. The plot of the book follows a young man named Evan Whitesky who is a hunter in the traditional sense as an Aboriginal, but also someone who has another foot set in modern ways. He is an everyman who could be anyone, really, no matter his heritage or colour of skin. Well, one day, the TV goes out in his home. So do the cell phones and, later, the landline. The power then gets cut off from the reserve. Isolated from the rest of the world, the people of the unnamed community struggle to survive and hope that help comes from elsewhere, especially as a cold, hard winter looms. However, the rest of the world seems to have plunged into a power blackout — with nobody really knowing what’s going on. Then a visitor arrives on the reserve, and others soon follow, and, eventually, the reservation has a wide-scale panic on its hands.
Moon of the Crusted Snow is Canadian journalist and author Waubgeshing Rice’s second novel. It is taut and unforgettable, and holds a candle up to other thrillers of this sort, such as Station Eleven. I’m impressed with Rice’s journalistic eye for detail, ear for dialogue and his skill with plotting. What’s especially impressive about this work is that Rice manages to shoe-horn in references to problems facing the indigenous community in Canada — suicide, alcohol and drug abuse, missing and murdered Aboriginal women and the harmful legacy of residential schools — without these things getting in the way of the story. That’s because they are all part of the story — not only of this novel, but the Aboriginal community as a whole. Rice also sets up a believable reserve as a setting, but doesn’t resort to the usual clichés of rez life as a place of unrelenting poverty. His characters are ordinary Canadians who watch hockey or have an impressive DVD collection, while some of them still have knowledge about traditional ways, languages (Ojibwe is spoken in this book) and stories that make their lives fascinating — even though they are dealing with an unknown crisis that is a threat to all of these things.
The tone of the book moves from light and humourous to serious and tragic without missing a beat or feeling cloying in the least. While the details as to why the world has been plunged into chaos are sketchy, they just serve to highlight how isolated the community of the book’s world can be — even as it depends on the rest of Canada to some degree for food, electricity and supplies. While Rice is careful to use fake city names (which is a little bit of a distraction) so, I would assume, a real-life reservation would not be identified, he is really writing about the realities of many northern communities and how they must lean on resources from the South to exist.
What also makes this work is that most of the characters are quite likable and you want to see some kind of happy or peaceful resolution for them. While the ending of the book is a little abrupt — which is probably the novel’s only true failing — it also underscores the novel’s key theme (with a mild spoiler here): that First Nations communities have been wiped from the map long ago through the stealing of their lands, but still its peoples still manage to keep on surviving somehow. The beat goes on, as the saying goes, and in Moon of the Crusted Snow, it does go on and on and on and on. What’s equally astounding is that cultural details are expertly weaved into the story as a whole without getting in that story’s way. In fact, when things are looking particularly grim for the characters, we get a funny and touching tale within a tale culled from Native tradition that works in the larger context of what’s being written about.
Moon of the Crusted Snow is a stellar book, and I would encourage anyone with more than a passing interest in Aboriginal affairs to give it a read. However, if you’re looking for something of a horror novel or thriller, the novel works on that level as well. All around, this is a well thought out and put together novel on survival and the means necessary to obtain it, and the importance of having a strong community that can band together to surmount obstacles. I’d be particularly interested to know what indigenous peoples thought of this book, and how the experience of reading this book rang true (or not) for them. However, if you’re a non-Native person and are interested in pursuing right relations with the First Nations peoples as a whole, this is a fun and entertaining read that is also educational. This is a book meant to be savoured. It is indeed very enjoyable, and you should definitely read it right now in one sitting as I did.
Waubgeshing Rice’s Moon of the Crusted Snow was published by ECW Press on October 2, 2018.
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