Wow wow wow wow wow.
Something I allow myself to forget is this very simple mantra: there is nothing better than a great novel. And I don’t care how many pets, lovers, cheesemongers, TV executives, winemakers and budget airline proprietors I shock with this pronouncement, but – to me at least – it’s fucking true. And this novel, Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice is a GREAT novel. Like a really fucking good novel, an “omg I need to buy all the writer’s other books once I’m buying books again” kinda good novel. It is complex without being confusing but also simple without being simplistic; it is riveting and surprising yet never a step away from complete believability… It’s central concern, central plot, feels almost like it could’ve – or should’ve – been done before, but this doesn’t matter, because Moon of the Crusted Snow manages to be an impressively original novel despite the fact that on first impression it could incorrectly be dismissed as derivative.
Moon of the Crusted Snow is more cancon, more Canadian fiction for me to read in the downtime while I try ever-harder to get slightly more remunerative work than what I’ve found so far: maybe if I can, y’know, know something about contemporary Canadian fiction I’ll be able to be like Dan Mallory and schmooze my way into a job I’m unqualified for. It seems unlikely. Also I’m not trying to do that. This, though, is a brilliant novel, and it doesn’t matter if I never talk to anyone about it or forget everything about it except for its agoraphobic claustrophobia. Yes, I know that sounds contradictory, but it’s exactly what I want to express.
Waubgeshig Rise is originally from Wasauksing First Nation and his novel is set within a First Nation community, up in the North of Ontario. It is set in the contemporary world and is about the coming of a terrible Winter that coincides with a vague societal collapse in the settler communities to the South (i.e. the descendants of European colonialists). This First Nation community has come to blend their traditional religious and cultural practices with the technologies of the modern world: although the reservation is technically “dry” following a spate of alcohol-related suicides a generation before, there are many figures within the community who spend their time drunk or stoned and quite ignorant of the ancestral skills required to live off the harsh land. When the internet cuts out, when mobile phones cut out, when the hydro-electric grid electricity cuts out, when the satellite phones cut out and when the expected restock of the convenience store fails to arrive, the elders of the community and the book’s main focus, Evan – a parent of a young family – begin to panic and worry about how to help their people survive the Winter. The community, forcibly transplanted a thousand miles northwards by repressive, colonialist governments 100 years ago (maybe more recently?) will need to pull together to thwart not just the awful Winters they have had to become used to, but also this new inability to rely on outside power and food and assistance.
Everything is already falling apart, a few weeks in, when a massive, bald, white man named Scott arrives with shitloads of guns, booze and cigarettes and insists on joining the First Nations to weather the Winter. As the stockpiled community food rations begin to run out and the weaker members of the community start dying off, tensions start to rise, all of which are stoked by Scott. A great tension in the novel relies on the reader and Evan’s knowledge that a confrontation between his people and Scott would – by virtue of numbers alone – result in an eventual victory for the Anishinaabe people, coupled with the knowledge that fighting an amoral strongman with a personal arsenal will not be easy or bloodless. The novel is interspersed with dreams and recitations of ancient myths, all of which question essential, universal, human themes: what must we do when faced with evil? Is it better to optimistically live beside evil knowing it could – but might not – attack at any time, or should one always take arms and fight, even though that fight will definitely result in (some) death and pain?
This is a post apocalyptic novel about a community, a people, a CONTINENT OF PEOPLES, who have already lived through numerous apocalypses before. Setting a piece of speculative fiction about societal collapse within the survivors of a persecuted society that has lived, unfree, alongside a different one, is a satisfying and intriguing literary choice. It’s also pretty wise: the people who will survive whatever destruction “the Western World” destroys itself in will not be those in big cities; they will be people who already live “half out” of the capitalist world, or the handful of people and peoples who are entirely divorced from it already: whether that is by choice or (very rare, now) a lack of contact.
Rice has an elder sum this up in dialogue about three quarters of the way through the novel, as the Winter nights begin getting longer:
The world isn’t ending […] Our world isn’t ending. It already ended. It ended when the Zhaagnaash came into our original home down south on that bay and took it from us. That was our world. When the Zhaagnaash cut down all the trees and fished all the fish and forced us out of there, that’s when our world ended.
The Zhaagnaash, of course, are the white settlers, are the people who want to use the land how it was used in Europe, who didn’t respect the ways in which the numerous indigenous peoples of this continent had found to live in the land without harming it.
I am not trying to lionise First Nations communities, but it is clear from the brief knowledge I’ve built up after a month in Canada that these people were royally fucked over in the not-at-all distant past. Forced relocations to colder, less fertile, land, the seizure and Westernised education of their children… It helps, I suppose, that Waubegshig Rice is a skilled writer: this is gorgeous, direct, prose: prose to slip between but artfully done. This is evocatively imagistic prose that doesn’t disappear like mist, it holds you in it: this writing is better than that “literary fiction” ideal where the words morph into psychological windows onto a plot. Rice is able to weave gorgeous, exciting, storytelling without losing the reader’s awareness of his literary skill, which in my opinion is the mark of truly great fiction.
Moon of the Crusted Snow is moving, intelligent, exciting, writing, and if you see a copy of it about, I heartily recommend it. I don’t think it’s currently available in the UK, but I’ve already sent links through to my buddies in publishing. This is a gorgeous novel, well worth your time, especially if you’re freezing fucking cold in Canada. Not at all escapism, but at least it made me aware that these polar fucking vortexes could be a lot fucking worse.
On November 14th 2018, I launched my first book, Bad Boy Poet, in the basement of Burley Fisher Books, Dalston. Here are some of the songs and poems I performed:
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