Residential Schools & Fiction: Black Apple Review

Black Apple by Joan Crate. Simon & Schuster Canada. March 2, 2016.

Black AppleBlack Apple by Joan Crate. Simon & Schuster Canada. March 2, 2016.

Joan Crate
Simon & Schuster Canada
March 1st, 2016
A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Torn 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.

In my final year at university, I took a Sociology of Gender course where I read Sarah de Leeuw’s Intimate Colonialisms: The Material and Experienced Places of British Columbia’s Residential Schools. In it, she uses place as a way to “conceptualize colonialism” and she chooses residential schools as her focus. The reason I mention de Leeuw’s work is because she also talked about residential schools as not just places of colonialism — a source of forced assimilation of aboriginal peoples stripping them of their culture — but also a place of resistance to that assimilation. If you’ve heard the stories of residential schools (and it’s appalling how many people haven’t within Canada), then you know they’re often focused on the narrative of the terrible things that happened to aboriginals at the hands of the Government of Canada and the church. However, it’s often presented as though aboriginals at these schools hadn’t resisted. It has framed the relationship as one sided when the reality is that oppressed groups do resist. De Leeuw says that

“Evidence of First Nations students’ rejection of residential schooling is attainable, in part, both through school records of student infractions and through stories articulated by former residential school students.”

What stood out to me while reading Métis author Joan Crate’s Black Apple was the two different approaches to resistance from Sinopaki and Anataki. When students are first brought to residential schools, they are given new first names to help sever them from their “heathen” heritage and of course, these new names are European, Christian names. Anataki chooses to resist the school system by maintaining her Blackfoot name and she does so by swapping her new name (Ruth) for another (Anne) which she “steals” from another student by raising her hand when Anne was called. She chooses Anne so she can whispers “-ataki” after its use, maintaining her ties to her culture. It’s a subtle resistance that goes unnoticed by everyone except Sinopaki who later becomes her closest and only friend.

Sinopaki — or Rose Marie — resisted more outwardly by being disruptive, whether running away or not sitting still in class. For the first third of the book, her anxiety is expressed as “fire worms” which have been brought on by the almost violent culture shock between her life with her father, mother, and brother and living in the confines of a bland, cold building with people who will try and beat her into conformity.

Anataki’s resistance persisted throughout her life but the same can’t be said of Sinopaki. The difference between these two young women was their access to their families. The other students got to go back home during the summer months but Sinopaki was stripped of that opportunity when the state ordered her to stay at the residential school, given her family’s perceived inability to care for her. It’s an interesting examination at what affects someone’s ability to rebel and in the end, I do think Sinopaki still exercised her will over the system even if it wasn’t as grandiose as we’ve come to expect from the concept of resistance.

Overall, I thought Black Apple had a strong start but I did notice my attention drifting elsewhere in the second half. It’s a book that you’d need to devote your time to, and the pacing could have been improved by cutting some parts. The book gives us an insight at the administrators behind the residential schools who are as bad as we’ve heard from reports (i.e. Father William, and Sister Joan) but we also get a look at people like Mother Grace who like to think that because they don’t sexually abuse or violently assault the students in these schools, they’re somehow less guilty in perpetrating the horrific practice of the residential school system. A nice racist is still as racist.

If you want to learn more about the residential school system and its affects on the aboriginal people generations later, check out the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s report.

Update: The United States had its own version of Residential Schools that were called “boarding schools” so it’s not just a Canadian issue. Métis writer Carleigh Baker also wrote a review of the novel over at The Globe and Mail.

Ardo Omer

Ardo Omer

Former WWAC editor. Current curmudgeon and Batman's personal assistant. Icon art by Diana Sim.