Black Apple by Joan Crate
Published by Simon & Schuster
This is what the publisher says (I received an ARC, so the back copy on my book might not match the back copy on everyone else’s):
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.
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. [source]
So now you know almost everything that happens. Here are the things you don’t know.
Sinopaki’s name is Sinopaki (kit fox). Rose Marie is the name given to her by the nuns who run the residential school she is sent to. Here’s a taste of the renaming process, from the perspective of Mother Grace, the nun in charge of the school and the story’s other focal character. The scene comes early in the novel, when the new girls, including Sinopaki, have entered the school for the first time.
Sister Margaret leaned towards the two girls in front of her, making Mother Grace’s office chair groan. “I’m going to give you proper names, you little beggars. Let’s see what we have here.” Slowly she flipped through the Bible.
Mother Grace suspected Sister Margaret was making as much of a production as possible out of the simple act of renaming. Sister Margaret had often voiced her objection to the scriptural naming policy, saying how she, the dormitory supervisor, would call out one name and have two or three girls of different ages come running. She advocated adding saints’ names to the roster. “Nice ones,” she’d said, “like Agatha, Bridget, Perpetua, or even Margaret.” Perhaps if Sister Margaret hadn’t brought up her suggestion so often, Mother Grace would have considered it. (p. 20)
This scene is told in turn by both Sinopaki and Mother Grace, who have sharply different perspectives. Sinopaki does not like being renamed Rose Marie, although at least Rose is familiar, the official name chosen by her parents in the hopes that having an English name would allow Sinopaki to avoid being renamed by white people.
As she stood in line for her nightclothes, Sinopaki, Rose, now Rose Marie, sucked blood from her bottom lip. Her eyes smarted and her head banged. First that nun appearing and disappearing right in front of her, and then her name being changed.
Name changes happened sometimes, she knew. It was normal … She knew that. But under her skin, she was still Sinopaki. (p. 22)
Being thrust into cruel circumstances doesn’t make heroes of everyone; instead, the worst is brought out in some girls. Bad enough being herded by the nuns and made to follow procedures that make no sense, Anataki, soon Sinopaki’s best friend and a marvelous coyote-hearted girl, runs afoul of dormitory bullies when she steals a name. Anataki, renamed Ruth, convinces the nuns (and by convinces I mean tricks in the best manner of Coyote the trickster) that she is in fact Anne. This is brilliant.
Waving off Sister Cilla’s “But I think you’re mistaken–” Sister Margaret fixed her with a steely gaze. “I believe I’m the senior supervisor here,” she said, then hollered over to Anataki, “No more trouble, Anne.”
“–ataki,” the little girl whispered.
Rose Marie, a few feet away, heard her finish her name, her old name, the Blackfoot name she had decided, secretly, to keep. She looked into Anataki’s face and saw a coyote dart behind her eyes. A coyote chasing a chicken. Quick. Then the chicken look was on her face again, dull and stupid.
She thought maybe she liked that girl, that Anataki. (p. 32)
Anataki is possibly my favourite character, and one of the story’s strengths. The narrative voice is strongest in the beginning, during Sinopaki’s first few years at school. The nuns – even the gentle ones – are ambiguous in their treatment of the girls, even Sister Cilla, who is the kindest of the sisters who run the school. Sinopaki’s voice is at its most vivid. She experiences new things, like riding in a car, like being stolen from her parents, in terms of her old life.
After several years at school, though, Sinopaki – or Rose Marie, as she is for most of the narrative – adapts, and adapts well. Her distinctive voice fades; the sections focusing on her seem more remote than the sharp tones of the sections filtered through Mother Grace’s lens. This is, I think, a reflection of Sinopaki’s loss of herself, or of the parts of herself that do not fit into the school, but it also distanced this reader from her; oddly, it was easier to identify with old Mother Grace, riddled with regrets and eaten with anxiety. Rose Marie’s loss of self is mirrored by her loss of her native tongue, a loss Anataki does not experience.
This is not the account of a typical residential school experience. Rose Marie is exceptional: she is soon picked out by Mother Grace, who deems her exceptionally bright and a possible future sister. Rose Marie is given private tutoring and some privileges, along with losses; her father loses guardianship of her and she is not allowed to return home during summer vacation. Rose Marie even graduate high school, the first girl to do so from St. Mark’s. The narrative is subtle in its emphasis on how even the favour that allows Rose Marie to do well at residential school is, covertly, a terrible loss for her.
Sinopaki’s narrative flags a bit toward the middle and Mother Grace becomes a more interesting narrator. The tragedy is, of course, that she really means well and is doing the best she can. She speaks out in the wider white community against abusive practices; she interferes to protect the girls from one of the nastier nuns; she regrets some of her decisions but cannot reverse them. And yet she is part of the machine of cultural genocide.
Ah, and I haven’t even mentioned the ghosts yet. Sinopaki sees ghosts, by the way, and has vivid dreams. The ghosts are unwelcome (mostly); the dreams and visions are her comfort.
One nagging problem for me was a character whom Rose Marie meets in the last portion of the novel, when she has to leave the safety (or so she feels) of St. Mark’s for three months. The one Blackfoot man she meets (and the only significant Blackfoot man in the story, other than Rose Marie’s father) doesn’t listen very well when she tells him to back off. Mind you, the main white man she meets in this part of her life is also ambiguous, although he does seem to have her welfare at heart.
I did like, however, that when Rose Marie sees the shadow of a young Native man who committed suicide following around a white man, and soon after sees a vision of the Native man as a boy, being sexually abused by the white man, who was in a position of power over him, she doesn’t hesitate in her internal reaction: she recognizes the evil as it is and considers the abuser to have murdered the young man as surely as if he had hanged him, himself. There isn’t any justice, though. Rose Marie doesn’t even consider telling anyone, and the horror of the young man’s death doesn’t shake the foundations of her world. She witnesses three other deaths, but the narrative voice and Rose Marie’s reactions are, on the whole, muted, likely as a result of her learning to distance herself emotionally as a coping mechanism.
This story reads more like a book for adults than like a book for teens. There are two leaps forward in years, not usually found in the main body of a YA story, and the language is less immediate than is typical of YA literature. The ending feels more symbolic – which it is, there are parallels and symbolism all over the place by the end – than convincing. Teens could certainly read this book; they simply would be unlikely to find it in the YA section of the library or the local bookstore.