Arts

In Moon of the Crusted Snow, Waubgeshig Rice explores reserve life and colonial legacies in an apocalyptic scenario. Photo: ECW Press.

Novel shows post-apocalyptic life for a people who have lived through trauma

Waubgeshig Rice’s Moon of the Crusted Snow could be considered as a post-apocalyptic meditation on a “what-if?” writing prompt: what would happen if the power went out across the country? However, Rice layers pre-existing colonial threats and Anishinaabe values, traditions and practices to complicate the outcome.

Trapped in his remote Anishinaabe community in northern Ontario by a power outage and the threat of a deep winter, the novel’s protagonist Evan Whitesky is an unassuming yet stabilizing force for his nation reeling from a lack of electricity and dwindling food resources. When white people from the south arrive at the border of the reserve claiming to seek refuge from the anarchy of the cities, the community must navigate human compassion with centuries’ old colonial fears.

For a remote community like Whitesky’s, heavily reliant on provincial power stations and grocery shipments from far-away cities, finding themselves cut off from everyone could conceivably mean catastrophe, even apocalypse.

But for elders like the protagonist’s auntie Aileen Jones, the loss of electricity is nowhere near the end of the world. That’s because for her, “‘(The world) already ended. It ended when the Zhaagnaash (white people) came into our original home down south on that bay and took it from us. That was our world.’”

Jones’s perspective feeds the reader’s dramatic anxiety as the reserve’s gas-powered generators run dry and people begin to die in the cold. With the implications of a devastating power outage promptly outlined at the novel’s outset, Rice meticulously details the gradual unwinding of the community’s cohesion, delicately stepping along a line between building suspense and boring the reader. Though the most action-packed sequence finds itself on the final few pages of the novel, the lead-up reads quickly. Gradually, it becomes clear that some on the reserve come to see the outage from their new white neighbours’ perspective: take charge or die, every man for himself.

In the eerie silences that fill the community’s first days without electricity, Rice ensures that the narrator is powerless too in their control of the pace of the story. Rather, significant events impose themselves suddenly on the community and in the story. It is the arrival of a mysterious and massive white man, Justin Scott, that happens to the story.

Like daintily stepping across crusty snow, all too aware that too much pressure could mean drowning in the depths of powder below the surface, the Anishinaabe community Rice creates exists on a precariously thin barrier separating them from the chaos ripping through southern cities. This only amplifies the apparent helplessness of the northern community as its members inevitably divide into survivalist factions.

Rice’s incarnation as a journalist (he works for CBC Sudbury) permits him to inform as well as entertain in this novel. For example, when early in the outage Whitesky and some friends opt to calm their nerves with a night of drinking, the author recalls the traumatic relationship many Indigenous communities have had with alcohol and drugs. According to the narrator, substance abuse “became so normal that everyone forgot about the root of this turmoil: their forced displacement from their homelands and the violent erasure of their culture, language and ceremonies.”

As in his past works of fiction, Midnight Sweatlodge (2012) and Legacy (2014), Rice uses a veil of storytelling to allow his readers to live through the difficulties, complications and celebrations of reserve life.