What if almost everything you relied on to live just stopped working one day? Your phone; the internet; grocery stores…What would you do to survive? Now imagine the same scenario while living on an isolated, First Nations’ reserve in the remote North, where nearly everything you’ve come to rely on comes from the now silent and dark South. With Moon of the Crusted Snow, author Waubgeshig Rice contemplates just this question through his spinning of a fable-like, cautionary tale that manages to, somehow, simultaneously both warm the heart and chill to the bone.
In a current world climate full of seemingly daily market, environmental and political collapses, Rice introduces us to a community that has already faced insurmountable odds for survival and now ultimately comes face-to-face with its greatest threat…itself. Perhaps it is a metaphor for the world at large. Or perhaps it’s a call to action. Or perhaps it’s a nightmarish, cultural wake-up call? As the books’ elder, medicine woman Aileen says, “Apocalypse. What a silly word. I can tell you there’s no word like that in Ojibwe…apocalypse. We’ve had that over and over. But we always survived.” Will this Anishinaabe elders’ words be prophetic? Or is this novel the death knell for a long, proud culture, and, maybe, even the world?
It is a typical Autumn – Dagwaagin, in Anishinaabemowin – and a young father is hunting moose – moozoo – in preparation, to feed his young family throughout the harsh, northern winter. In fact, the whole First Nations community seems to be preparing for the change in seasons, going through the rituals necessary: hunting; gathering; repairing; cutting; storing. And just as typically, the satellite service was out again, which meant no television or cellphones. Just “another day on the rez.” But as the days grow colder and shorter and the satellite service doesn’t come back on as usual, and hydro goes out, and there’s a panicked run on groceries and supplies at the conglomerate-run Northern Trading Post, things begin to feel less and less typical in our isolated community. The way the author suspends time, letting the reader fully experience a foreboding, harsh ‘rez’ winter through the day-to-day rituals of the characters in this story is the books’ real strength. You feel the cold on your face. You hear the snow crunch beneath your feet. You smell the moozoo cooking in the oven. And using the silence and isolation of a winter storm to forebode the arrivals of “strangers from the South”, and worse, lends the story a wonderfully unsettling gravitas. As the reader, I felt myself actively distancing myself from the story’s intense, emotional moments as a pure, empathetic response to Evan, our protagonist, who must do the same if he and his family are to survive.
As a fable of sorts, the characters in Moon of the Crusted Snow are realized in an almost mythic and simplistic way. Evan Whitesky (like a winter storm?) is our protagonist. A young father of two, Evan is a doer. A man that likes using his hands and completing a task, especially if that task helps to provide for his young family. His partner and soul-mate, Nicole McCloud, is busy raising their son, Maiingan, (Wolf) and three-year-old, Nanghons (Little Star). Nicole is doing her best to provide for the children and Evan using modern amenities, but also works at learning and preserving what she can about her culture from the elders around her. This young family is the future of a long, proud culture and the author does a wonderful job of inviting the reader into their home and lives to reveal their hopes, dreams, nightmares and fears.
Chief Terry Meegis and his cousin and councilor, Walter Meegis, mainly represent the band council. They seem to be in each other’s shoes as Terry appears to be a good politician, but a bad leader and Walter comes across as one who would be a bad politician, but a good leader. Perhaps they represent the duality in all of us, especially our hero, Evan Whitesky.
The old customs, rituals and stories are mainly represented through band elder, Aileen, “everyone’s auntie.” It is Aileen who teaches the young women about the healing properties of the forest plants. It is Aileen who smudges the community and offers a prayer before meetings. It is Aileen who Evan looked to for wisdom and meaning: “She’s lived through it all, thought Evan. If she’s not worried, then we shouldn’t be.”
Our antagonist is a man from the South, Justin Scott. I like the author’s choice of name, combining a current politician’s first name with an infamous, colonial surname; like the character has one foot in the dystopian present and one in the apocalyptic, colonial past. Scott is a survivalist, but mainly uses those skills to gather power or appease himself. He represents all that can go wrong when the individual usurps the community.
The giving nature of Evan and pride in his heritage runs smack into the hard-headed and somewhat racist views of Scott. And history repeats itself as the First Nations community takes in Scott and others to help them survive the winter, just as they did when the colonists first appeared on their shores.
There are many, strong themes that run through Waugeshig Rice’s Moon of the Crusted Snow; ‘survival’, ‘ritual’, ‘dreams’, ‘the weather’, and ‘old verses modern ways’. But two themes stand out for me as themes that tie together all the others; those are ‘community’ and ‘food’.
I grew up in Parry Sound, so we were the closest neighbour to Wasauksing, the First Nations reserve where the book’s author, Waubkeshig Rice grew up. So, I know the sense of community that permeates the book’s First Nations community. We had a version of it too in our small town, especially in winter, when a squall would blow up off of Georgian Bay and lock you in your house for three days straight. A community is measured not by its size or wealth, but by how it responds to moments of strife or an outside threat; or worse…an internal threat.
Rice’s community in Moon of the Crusted Snow seems to manage in a proto-typical ‘dysfunctional functioning’ way, like many families. It’s a delicate dance; a delicate balance. There are lost souls who have succumbed to alcohol or drugs or video games; and there are those like Evan, who find comfort in helping and providing for others. It’s when the pressure mounts that we see the real cracks in the community and see who rises to attempt to repair those fissures and maintain the precarious, yet precious, balance.
Food is the other theme that weaves the story together; not surprisingly for a catastrophic tale set during a harsh, Northern winter. The theme of ‘food’ as comfort; as survival; as connection to others; as family, comes into play all throughout the novel. Whether Evan’s parents are delivering bannock and moose stew to the “boys plowing the roads”, or the Chief and his workers are handing out mid-winter rations from the administration building, there is a sense of food as being the centre of every impulse, the centre of the all the tension, the centre of the community. And when food begins to run scarce, people panic. And when people panic, community is lost.
Oh, and the author’s descriptions of smells stands out for me; because in the dead of winter when Natures’ myriad of smells lie dormant under the snow, the smells of cooking, and close bodies, and burning wood take on a heightened, mythic quality that I feel the author wonderfully captures.
I wish I had time to discuss this book with some Indigenous readers to get their take on this book as I can imagine it might be a very different experience for them than it was for me. Is this book relevant to those from a ‘settler’ background? Absolutely. There are many lessons this intriguing, dark novel has to impart to readers of all backgrounds. And there are many questions that the reader may find themselves asking as the story replays in their minds’ eye: “How would I survive an event like this?” “What preparations have I made?” “What elders do I actively care and provide for?” “What stories would I fight to keep alive?” “Who is my community?”
Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice is a wonderful read. If you like to learn of other cultures, or other places, or enjoy feeling uneasy and a little frightened while you’re reading, then this is the book for you. And I like what, I feel, the Onaabenii Giizis, the ‘crusted snow’ has to tell us as a metaphor: that to walk through perilous times you sometimes have to tread lightly and, sometimes, you just have to break through the surface and see what you’re made of as you then, step-by-step, struggle your way back home.
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