Book Review: Black Apple by Joan Crate

black apple by joan crate

Black Apple by Joan Crate, via Simon & Schuster Canada, out now.

[I received this book from Simon & Schuster Canada in exchange for an honest review; this did not affect my opinion of the book whatsoever.]

When Simon & Schuster emailed me about a new novel called Black Apple about a young aboriginal girl in a residential school system of Canada’s past, it was just after I had seen the beautiful ballet Going Home Star: Truth and Reconciliation (which was written by Joseph Boyden). The ballet was my first form of education of the residential schools and their impact. I grew up in the States, where we definitely did not learn anything about that; we barely learned anything about Canada to begin with. As you can imagine, I went home quite somber and speechless that night. But I’m so glad I had that experience. It also sparked my interest in learning more about Canadian aboriginal issues and the schools. So here we are with Black Apple. I jumped on the opportunity to read Joan Crate’s fictionalized story of Rose Marie Whitewater (real name Sinopaki), a Blackfoot girl who was taken away from her family and taken to St. Mark’s Residential School for Girls, and Mother Grace, the confused head nun of the school.

For those of you, like me, who don’t know much about this piece of history: Canadian residential schools were run by the government and the church – they took hundreds of thousands of young aboriginal children away from their families and put them into religious schools with harsh conditions under the pretence of ‘assimilating them into the Canadian culture,’ which meant forcing them to convert, learn English and shed their customs. The government thought they were helping, but in fact, these actions of the late 1800s to late 1900s are still hurting people today. At least 6,000 children died while in the schools – thousands were mentally, physically and sexually abused. Now, the survivors and their family are left to deal with the trauma. Read this article as some starter information.

The book begins with Sinopaki being pulled out of her home, put onto a bus, and shipped off to a school in the middle of nowhere Alberta.

Mama and Papa had told her that men might be coming, but they hadn’t said she would have to go all alone, that they would stay behind. These a-ita-pi-ooy were stealing her. People eaters. She cried into her hands, snot-slimy. Ahead, the stripe man was a black smear against the old carriage road.

The only other girls she knows at the school are her step-cousins, but they want nothing to do with her. Because she is small and can’t sit still, Rose Marie becomes an easy target for bullying from older students and the nuns. Rose Marie starts to see ghosts in the school, though she doesn’t realize that’s what they are immediately. The only hopeful light she has is her new friend Anataki.

Crate’s writing is poetic (well, she is a poet) and haunting. The way she describes the things Rose Marie sees and feels is beautiful. It was heartbreaking to read whenever Rose Marie was feeling anxious and trapped – all she wanted to do was run around outside, breathe the air and be one with nature like the way she was raised. But she is never allowed outside. She is punished for her anxiety, which she calls ‘fire worms,’ like in this scene when she is forced to stand in the corner of her classroom after trying to get up to leave. She resorts to daydreaming of home.

Summer sun, but not too hot. She ran to her creek and jumped from stone to stone, the water a fish dance of deep-down green and surface flash. The fire worms in her tummy slowed down. She splashed in the cold water, then hopped to the bank. The fire worms shrank. By the time she was skipping around the woodpile, her outside skin was perfectly cool, her tummy still.

“Rose Marie, you will now stand on one leg,” Sister Joan shouted from the front of the class.

The eyes of all the kids were on her again. As she raised her leg, fire worms wriggled inside. She slammed her foot down, bang, and tried to bang, bang, bang them out.

The book goes on for a decade as Rose Marie is forced to stay at the school and then committed to the path of a nun. It was upsetting to read when she gets older of how her views have changed to mirror what she’s been taught. You wonder if she’ll ever find her way back to who she really is, not who she was moulded to be. You also get to know Mother Grace more – how she questions what she’s done with her life and how she should run the school, how she takes a particular interest to Rose Marie. She’s there to show a compassionate side to the sad story, but I wavered throughout the book on if I should empathize or not, if I owed her my trust. I also would have rather just read about Rose Marie; every time it switched to Mother Grace I felt like I was taken away from Rose Marie.

I have to say I was waiting for some sort of climax but there wasn’t one, and because it took me longer than usual to read the book due to moving and other circumstances, and because I felt that it could have been shorter anyway, and because it spans over a decade, my reading experience felt dragged out so I didn’t enjoy it as much as I hoped I would. But at the same time, are you supposed to enjoy a sad book like this? I do feel that I learned a bit more into the history even though it was fictional, and I’m glad I read Crate’s writing.

  • Listen to this great interview with Crate on CBC’s The Next Chapter on why she felt she needed to write this book.
  • Currently in Canada the First Nation in Attawapiskat in Northern Ontario is facing a state of crisis because many teenagers have attempted and successfully committed suicide due to their living conditions. Someone posted a PO Box address online to send words of encouragement to the teens of Attawapiskat. I think I will send some art supplies and notebooks, and I’m sure they’d love to hear from you too.
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