Black Apple by Joan Crate
Hardcover, 336 pages
Published March 1st 2016 by Simon & Schuster
The idea of reviewing this book is giving me heebie-jeebies. It covers such a sensitive and complex topic. I must start this by saying my review here is not to be seen as any sort of commentary on this part of Canadian history. That is, other than the fact that it was horrible. These are my thoughts on this book.
I’m not really sure what I expected this book to be, but it’s a thoughtful bildungsroman set in Canada when residential schools were still functioning. It’s the story of a young Blackfoot girl growing up, coming into her own, and finding a place to belong. This story is about humanity and choices. It’s about one girl’s journey to reclaim herself; her search for identity when her own was stripped away from her.
The main character in Black Apple is an indigenous girl named Sinopaki. When she is torn from her family and sent to St. Mark’s Residential School for Girls, her name is changed to Rose Marie. All indigenous names were changed to Christian ones.
During Sinopaki/Rose Marie’s childhood, the tone of the book reminded me of Jane Eyre and Jane’s time at Lowood School for Girls. Here, Rose Marie, much like Jane, is functionally an orphan—though not technically one. The girls are treated in much the same manner—they are abused both physically and psychologically. They are not really treated as humans because they are children. But in addition to this in Rose’s case, she is also treated as less than because she is “Indian.”
In her afterward, Joan Crate says: “I wanted to explore the psychology of those who worked at the schools, often well-meaning individuals whose sense of religious, cultural, and/or racial superiority allowed them to think of their service as a personal sacrifice for the greater good, one for which they were neither adequately compensated by the government nor admired by their charges, the result sometimes being acts of cruelty and depravity of which their younger selves would never have believed their older selves capable.” She does this through Mother Grace, the headmistress of St. Mark’s.
This is not a simple thing. You cannot just point the finger at nuns and be like, the nuns were evil and did this horrible thing and it’s all their fault! This was a system-wide failure. It was the government, it was society, and it was, yes, the Catholic Church. There is, however, no oneparty, no one individual to blame. We all share this blame, and this terrible legacy. And Crate explores this well.
At St. Mark’s, there are many characters who have both good and bad qualities. Ingrained in all those who work there is a superiority that they have been brought up in. They truly think that this is the way to “civilize” the “Indians” and bring them the saving grace of the Lord. They often seem to forget, however, to actually show any grace to these children. Some, of course, do—on occasion. They aren’t all bad. This can be seen in Sister Cilla and, at times, Mother Grace. But they were still a part of a horrible thing and let their own hubris, their own “vocation,” their own sense of worth, keep this travesty going. Many, like Mother Grace, did not want this, their life’s work, to come to nothing. I can feel for them in that. However, there are things that are more important than our own sense of a job well done. Things like kindness and justice.
From my point of view, I felt that Crate gave the issues faced in this book adequate complexity. I liked the way she explored the system behind the schools when she wrote from Mother Grace’s perspective. This is the life Mother Grace knew. This is the job she was given. The nuns at St. Mark’s were cogs in the wheel of this great inhumanity.
I thought it was neat as well how Crate wove in details of Blackfoot beliefs throughout the story. We see in Rose Marie their beliefs in spirits and their approach to the afterlife. I liked the way that Crate brought this element in as something that was actually happening. She did not tell us about it but rather showed us in the ghosts that Rose Marie would see.
There were many things about this book that broke my heart, but one that stuck with me is Rose Marie’s sense of not belonging anywhere. Many people her age go through a similar feeling and seek to “find themselves,” but hers was so much deeper than that. She had a place she belonged, and then she was torn from it. She was given another place to belong, but when she tried it outside the walls of St. Mark’s, she found again that she didn’t fit there either. There was no place left for her. She straddled two cultures, and didn’t seem to belong to either. At the school, they were taught that their culture, their language, their way of life was something to be hated. But they weren’t really given another option. They would be later tossed from the school disillusioned, with no place they fit.
This is a tough thing to talk about. I’m a white Canadian woman. I don’t know the deep hurt that is still felt throughout the indigenous community. I don’t know how those who experience that would feel about this book. I know only what I, and my less-than-adequate knowledge of this time, feel. This novel, while interesting and thought-provoking, is just that—a novel. I must remind myself that this is a sensitive and very real topic with more layers than one novel can provide. It has, however, opened my eyes further to this topic. It has made me want to learn more about this time in Canada’s checkered past. We can’t just whisper about it behind closed doors. That’s how history ends up repeating itself.
It’s important that we don’t hold this book up as something more than it is. This is not a history book toting facts. This is a fictitious tale. For those of us who do not have immediate knowledge of the residential school system, we have to make sure that we don’t count this as a history lesson. For that, it’s only an introduction. This time period is a vessel through which the author explores the human condition and Sinopaki’s search for identity.
As a white Canadian woman without much knowledge of indigenous history or culture, I can’t speak to this book’s accuracy or sensitivity. However, as a human, I found this book to be a compelling coming-of-age story. It broke my heart. Many times.
If you like character-driven bildungsromans in which the coming of age is steeped in adversity and a strong need for identity, check this one out.
For more information on Residential Schools and conversation happening around them today, check out the TRC website.