Calgary novelist Joan Crate examines residential schools in coming-of-age novel Black Apple
Even in her imagination, Calgary author Joan Crate did not want to visit St. Mark’s Residential School for Girls.
It may have turned out to be a timely visit for the novelist, but that didn’t make it any easier. Black Apple (Simon and Schuster, 336 pages, $32), the author’s first novel since 1989, will hit bookstores in a few days. Less than a year ago, The Truth and Reconciliation Commission released a 381-page report that studied the residential school system in Canada. It came to the damning conclusion that the country’s removal of aboriginal children from their families and forcing them into abusive, Christian-run schools amounted to cultural genocide.
It doesn’t take long for Black Apple to starkly illustrate that point. It’s all there in the first few harrowing pages. Our young protagonist, Rose, is removed from her Blackfoot home by a priest and an Indian agent in rural Alberta during the Second World War. Her helpless parents watch as she is stuffed into a car. When she cries, the priest hits her.
“I had a lot of soul searching to do,” says Crate. “I did not welcome the prospect of writing about residential schools. But I didn’t want to join the conspiracy of silence around them.”
How Crate came to set her fiction during one of Canada’s most shameful periods is due entirely to Rose, the headstrong young girl she had created years earlier. A poet and novelist who taught English literature and creative writing at Red Deer College, Crate was working on a new book of poetry during a sabbatical when she came across the character in some old writing. The story didn’t really work. But she loved the character.
The problem was that she was a Blackfoot child in Alberta during the Second World War. Crate, whose father was half-Cree, knew enough about our history to know that this meant she would have likely spent her formative years in the residential school system. So, somewhat reluctantly, she began doing research. There were books and academic PhD reports. For awhile there was a website that the Truth & Reconciliation Commission operated that allowed residential school survivors to anonymously post their experiences.
“There was lots of reading, lots of talking to people, lots of delving,” she says. “Even though I had heard stories from a young age, it was just the depth of suffering (that was surprising). Just the fact that so many people died at the schools. I hadn’t realized that. There were surprises.”
Black Apple follows Rose’s coming-of-age at St. Mark’s. Rechristened Rose Marie by the nuns, she is a bright, intuitive and often angry child who resists her new home for as long as she can. St. Mark’s is impoverished and full of ghosts — some symbolic, some literal — who seem products of the misery, violence and mystery of the school’s dark past. On top of that, the food is terrible, there are bullies and some of the nuns employ vicious corporal punishment to rein in Rose Marie’s stubborn spirit.
But the head of the school — an arthritic nun named Mother Grace — sees potential in Rose Marie and attempts to bring it out, even if some of her ideas seem woefully wrong-headed to modern sensibilities. The aging nun, secretly harbouring her own doubts, experiences her own coming of age as the novel spans from the Second World War into the 1950s.
“She’s a product of her time and of her faith and training,” says Crate. “She has taken a vow of obedience, among other things. But she is somebody who does question. I just thought that all of those people who went into the residential school system as teachers — and most of the schools were Catholic, but not all — I found it hard to believe that anyone would say ‘I’m really going to mess these kids up.’ I knew that there were people who didn’t go in with an intention to do deliberate harm. I wanted to look into the psychology of that.”
Which is not to say that Crate whitewashes the experience. Even those with the best intentions have a overactive sense of superiority, with many believing they are providing the young aboriginal girls a service by leading them to the “light” of Christianity. Much of the hostility, Crate theorizes, came from the fact that those who worked at the schools often felt under-appreciated for what they thought was noble work. They thought they were saviours while the residents saw themselves as prisoners.
Still, Black Apple isn’t unremittingly grim. Not unlike Empire of the Sun, J.G. Ballard’s 1984 semi-autobiographical tale about a British boy coming of age in a brutal Japanese internment camp in Shanghai, Crate’s novel has moments of humour, light and compassion. There’s a ghost story and a romance coursing beneath the main narrative and frequent excursions into the culture of the Blackfoot.
“St. Mark’s is a setting — it’s an overpowering setting in some ways — but it is a setting for other things that go on in the school,” said Crate. “The friendship is very important and the idea of education and what it is and how she defines herself. One of the main themes I think of is identity and that’s as much for Mother Grace as it is for Rose Marie. It is about identity and the confinements of life and how we overstep that.”
Crate was born in Yellowknife and raised with a “strong respect for indigenous culture,” whether it was the Dogrib and Inuit in Yellowknife or the Blackfoot and Metis she was exposed to as the family moved into British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Alberta.
Crate’s first book of poetry, 1989’s critically acclaimed Pale as Real Ladies: Poems for Pauline Johnson, retold the life of the 19th-Century poet and performer who was born to a Mohawk chief father and white mother.
While her poems and fiction have often explored indigenous culture and issues, Crate stresses that the residential school experience she writes about in Black Apple was not drawn from her own family history. Her father did not go to residential schools. She knows very little about her Cree grandfather.
“I had heard stories growing up from people who went to residential schools,” she said. “But they tended to be very small and encapsulated. No one really went into the more difficult things in any detail. I did know about them. But if I or even my dad had gone, I don’t think I could have used Mother Grace’s voice. And, for my story, it was necessary to use her voice.”