A few nights ago, I had put the kids to bed and thought I’d read for a little while, so I picked up Moon of the Crusted Snow. Two hours later, I looked up and I had both finished the book and stayed up well past my bedtime. So if I’ve been a little extra sleepy lately, you may perhaps at least partly blame Waubgeshig Rice.
Moon of the Crusted Snow is a gripping post-apocalyptic novel — admittedly not a genre I turn to often — set in Ontario’s far North on an Anishinaabe reserve. It’s late fall; Evan Whitesky returns home after bagging a moose to find that the satellite television service is out. The next morning, there’s no cell reception. Soon the power goes out. Then the landlines. Then the snow starts, as the band council tries to navigate keeping their community together with no food left in the grocery store, no contact with the south, and the emergency diesel generator tanks only half full. Oh, and people suddenly are having disturbing prophetic (?) dreams.
There is a major contrast between Rice’s novel and the last post-apocalyptic novel I read, which was Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (which also has a Canadian setting). In Station Eleven, you know exactly what happened: the world is devastated by a global swine flu pandemic. In Moon of the Crusted Snow, there’s no explanation of the disaster that has apparently befallen — the province? the country? the world? Is it war? Disease? Nuclear accident? There has clearly been some sort of widespread technological collapse, but the reason behind it remains unknown, and only accentuates the sense of this small community’s absolute isolation. Frankly, it’s downright eerie.
A major theme of the novel is indigenous resilience in the face of tragedy, as exemplified in a conversation between Evan and Aileen, the community’s chief elder:
“You know, when young people come over, sometimes some of them talk about the end of the world,” Aileen said, breaking the silence and snapping Evan out of his woolgathering. He looked up from the plaid pattern on the vinyl tablecloth to the old woman’s face.
“They say that this is the end of the world. The power’s out and we’ve run out of gas and no one’s come up from down south. They say that the food is running out and that we’re in danger There’s a word they say too — ah . . . pock . . . ah . . .”
“Yes, apocalypse! What a silly word. I can tell you there’s no word like that in Ojibwe. Well, I never heard a word like that from my elders anyway.”
Evan nodded, giving the elder his full attention.
“The world isn’t ending,” she went on. “Our world isn’t ending. It already ended. It ended when the Zhaagnaash came into our original home down south on that bay and took it from us. That was our world. When the Zhaagnaash cut down all the trees and fished all the fish and forced us out of there, that’s when our world ended. They made us come all the way up here. This is not our homeland! But we had to adapt and luckily we already knew how to hunt and live on the land. We learned to live here.”
She became more animated as she went on. Her small hands swayed as she emphasized the words she wanted to highlight. “But then they followed us up here and started taking our children away from us! That’s when our world ended again. And that wasn’t the last time. We’ve seen what this . . . what’s the word again?”
“Yes, apocalypse. We’ve had that over and over. But we always survived. We’re still here. And we’ll see be here, even if the power and the radios don’t come back on and we never see any white people ever again.” (149-50)
Of course, this is a post-apocalyptic scenario, and not everyone is resilient, and not everyone survives. Throughout the novel there are tensions between those who have maintained or learned traditional skills and ways of life, and those who haven’t — among them, Evan’s younger brother Cam, who has neither the inclination nor the ability to provide for his family by hunting and trapping, like Evan and their parents do. The divide between Evan and Cam typifies the greater divide in their community between those who cherish traditional Anishinaabe skills and values and those who don’t, between those who rely on themselves and those who rely on others, between those who provide and those who take. These differences are exacerbated with the midwinter arrival of Justin Scott, a polarizing white man seeking shelter with the band. (Though the tensions are ever-present throughout the narrative, Rice is able to make his point without feeling preachy.)
The blurb on the front cover calls Moon of the Crusted Snow “chilling in the best way possible,” a sentiment with which I have to agree. I stayed up to finish the book in part because I was afraid of it invading my dreams if I didn’t — but also because as it went on I had to know what happened next. I’ll be visiting Waubgeshig Rice’s worlds again.