Review: Black Apple by Joan Crate

imageTorn from her home and delivered to St. Mark’s Residential School for Girls by government decree, young Rose Marie finds herself in an alien universe where nothing of her previous life is tolerated, not even her Blackfoot name. For she has entered into the world of the Sisters of Brotherly Love, an order of nuns dedicated to saving the Indigenous children from damnation. Life under the sharp eye of Mother Grace, the Mother General, becomes an endless series of torments, from daily recitations and obligations to chronic sickness and inedible food. And then there are the beatings. All the feisty Rose Marie wants to do is escape from St. Mark’s. How her imagination soars as she dreams about her lost family on the Reserve, finding in her visions a healing spirit that touches her heart. But all too soon she starts to see other shapes in her dreams as well, shapes that warn her of unspoken dangers and mysteries that threaten to engulf her. And she has seen the rows of plain wooden crosses behind the school, reminding her that many students have never left here alive.

Set during the Second World War and the 1950s, Black Apple is an unforgettable, vividly rendered novel about two very different women whose worlds collide: an irrepressible young Blackfoot girl whose spirit cannot be destroyed, and an aging yet powerful nun who increasingly doubts the value of her life. It captures brilliantly the strange mix of cruelty and compassion in the residential schools, where young children are forbidden to speak their own languages and given Christian names. As Rose Marie matures, she finds increasingly that she knows only the life of the nuns, with its piety, hard work and self-denial. Why is it, then, that she is haunted by secret visions—of past crimes in the school that terrify her, of her dead mother, of the Indigenous life on the plains that has long vanished? Even the kind-hearted Sister Cilla is unable to calm her fears. And then, there is a miracle, or so Mother Grace says. Now Rose is thrust back into the outside world with only her wits to save her.

With a poet’s eye, Joan Crate creates brilliantly the many shadings of this heartbreaking novel, rendering perfectly the inner voices of Rose Marie and Mother Grace, and exploring the larger themes of belief and belonging, of faith and forgiveness.

Canada has a long and complicated history with its First Nations people, particularly when it comes to the decision to remove children from their local communities in order to send them away to residential schools. From the 1870’s onwards and up to 1996, over 130 residential schools were established across Canada, mainly run by religious orders, and affecting over 150,000 Aboriginal children. It’s a dark time in our nation’s past, but one that needs examining in order to learn from our mistakes, and Joan Crate’s novel Black Apple is a compelling yet poetic look through two very different perspectives.

Through the lenses of Rose Marie (Sinopaki), a young Blackfoot girl who is taken from her mother, father and younger brother and Mother Grace, the head of St. Mark’s Residential School for Girls, the complicated and often heart-wrenching experiences of the leaders, teachers and students at these schools are brought to life. From Rose Marie, we feel the loneliness and alienation each child encountered from being ripped from their culture, forbidden to speak their own languages and denied their own names. These children are cold, hungry and defenceless, unsure of what is going on around them and how they are supposed to fit in. For many, exposure to new illnesses and strange food result in sickness and even death. In Rose Marie’s case, there is a wildness about her – fire worms in her belly – that fights against the rigid structures of the nun’s rules, and that causes her to be beaten and denied basic human rights. She fights being Rose Marie at every turn of this coming-of-age story, with the memory of Sinopaki fading with each year. Her story is not easy to read, because it is one that we have heard so many times before and are helpless to stop. The fire in Rose Marie’s belly is also her strength, and she is able to find something deep within her to survive – to love her friend, to keep her faith in her family and to make it through in order to rediscover who she is meant to be. Crate’s poetic background shines during Rose Marie’s darkest times, as she describes the visions of Sinopaki’s parents and Anataki, as well as the mysterious visitors who only appear in the dark.

Mother Grace is the figure of the white saviour, determined to “instruct and guide” all Indians as a way of holding onto her flagging faith. By controlling her students – and Rose Marie in particular – via contact with their families, she removes them from their heritage and forces them into the church family, as they have no where else to go. Weary of the struggle herself, Mother Grace turns a blind eye to the behaviours of her staff, preferring not to discuss those things that are whispered about by others. By literally locking away the past, she ensures that the school is haunted by these transgressions – the priest who abused a young boy in multiple ways, only to have the boy eventually commit suicide, and the young nun assaulted by a priest, causing both of them to die tragically. Mother Grace is unwilling to see these ghosts, and it up to Rose Marie and her gift of seeing the dead to bring them to light – an apt parallel to the real life Truth and Reconciliations statement gathering. Rose Marie cannot help but see the sins of the past and they send her almost mad.

While Crate is careful to be honest and forthcoming in her descriptions of life at the residential school, it is not until Rose Marie leaves the relative safety of St. Mark’s to travel to Black Apple that she encounters the everyday racism common to the time period. Not even her devotion to God renders her immune to the slurs and outright hostility that her heritage provokes in otherwise God-fearing individuals, including the head priest. It’s a sobering time for Rose Marie, and while initially shocking, it brings back the strong-willed and determined young girl she used to be. Her experiences, as well as the relationships she develops with both the men and the women of the boarding house where she lives, opens her eyes to the possibilities of a life that she had not considered.

As the book concludes, Mother Grace must accept that she can control only her own faith, thoughts and actions, and that there are consequences for forcing your will upon others. Rose Marie comes to realize that her destiny lies within her, and that each life must follow its own path, no matter where that leads. The ending does not promise happy rainbows and unicorns; rather, it provides us with honest reflection and a glimpse of hope for the future. Black Apple is the book that should be read, not because of its subject matter, but because of the complex emotions and thoughts it will leave with the reader long after its cover is closed.

Black Apple is available now from Simon & Schuster Canada. A copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. ISBN: 9781476795164, 336 pages. It is available for purchase from Amazon, Indigo and your favourite independent bookseller.