Title: Black Apple
Author: Joan Crate
Rating: ★★★ 1/2
Synopsis: 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.
Huge thank you to Simon & Schuster Canada for this ARC!
Black Apple was an ARC I received last January, and it’s a book I put off reading until now. Why I did that, I couldn’t tell you. I love books about tough subject matters, but I am also a Canadian who is very prideful of her country. This novel focuses on a large blemish in Canada’s history, and one that shouldn’t be ignored: residential school systems that harmed s many of Canada’s First Nations.
This book was difficult to read, and that isn’t an understatement. Sniopak, or Rose Marie, as she is renamed at St. Mark’s, is a feisty young Blackfoot girl who is thrust into the residential school system, and is fighting to not lose her roots. She is treated fairly poorly by the nuns and fathers in the school, as she refuses to allow reformation to take hold of her.
Rose Marie’s story is sad, but not uncommon, as this blight went on for many years, unchallenged or unchanged, which is why Crate’s novel is such an important read. There was so much research and empathy that went into this story, and that I can applaud wholeheartedly. I was completely invested in the story, what was happening to Rose Marie and her friends, and I was so aggravated and disturbed by how the First Nations were being treated in this story. You feel a lot of anger, a lot of sadness, and its emotionally draining. However, the secondary characters do have a solid amount of personality, and they help to contribute to Rose Marie’s overarching story of trying to choose the right path: staying true to her roots or becoming religious.
However, I did have a few gripes. One issue was with the writing itself. Sometimes I really struggled to connect with the writing, even though the content itself was really strong. Crate is a poet by trade, so parts of this novel read with such a poetic mindset, but for me sometimes I found it read a bit awkwardly. The other issue I had came in the form of the ending, which comes across a bit too “White saviour,” which I wish wasn’t the case given how the romance in this novel blossoms. I like the way in which Rose Marie leaves St. Mark’s, I’m just not sure if that ending worked for me personally, though it’s really plausible too given that sometimes people can give us a way out.
I think Black Apple is a very interesting, if challenging read. While I did have some problems with it at times, I won’t deny how engaging the story was or how much Rose Marie as a character spoke to me. This was such an interesting look at Canada’s history, and I’d be curious to see if Crate decides that Rose Marie’s story needs a continuation.