Joan Crate imagined a fictional Blackfoot girl named Rose Marie Whitewater and introduced her through her poetry.
When the “tiny, feisty, stubborn” character insisted on lingering in Crate’s mind, “I had to follow through a bit,” said the author and retired Red Deer College instructor.
Crate decided to see what would happen if she fleshed out the character of Rose Marie further through prose. The result is the new novel, Black Apple — a story of love, redemption and forgiveness. It was 10 years in the making and is now being published by Simon and Schuster Canada.
The plot follows the life of the irrepressible Rose Marie from age 7, when she’s torn from her family and taken to St. Mark’s residential school for girls by government decree, to age 19.
Although two-thirds of the novel is set at the Indian residential school, Crate, who’s part Metis, believes this was more out of necessity than design. “I was locked into (this setting)” because she saw Rose Marie living in Southern Alberta during the mid 1940s to early 1950s.
“I thought, could I have her escape this somehow? But there was (realistically) no way that she would not be going to residential school,” added the author, who will read at a book launch of her novel at 7 p.m. on Friday, March 11, at Sunworks in Red Deer.
When Crate, who was short-listed for the Commonwealth Book Award for her first 1989 novel, Breathing, first began working on this new story during her summer breaks from teaching, many Canadians were still unfamiliar with the destructive legacy of these mostly church-run boarding schools.
Some friends she spoke to didn’t even realize that Indian families had no choice but to send their children away to be assimilated.
These historic facts are now widely known in the aftermath of the Truth and Reconciliation hearings. But Crate feels her aim was never to educate readers so much as to provide insight into what the experience could have been like for one little aboriginal girl.
“The main thing is not to teach, but (to) show a part of history that had been suppressed and swept under the carpet for a time,” she said. “It was important to get that out of the box.”
Just as author Joy Kogawa’s book Obasan allowed readers to empathize with characters who were moved to internment camps for Japanese-Canadians during the war, Crate hopes Black Apple will open an insightful window into what cultural deprivation was like for many indigenous children and their families.
“You can see it through someone else’s eyes. That’s the gift of fiction. It can transport you through another person’s experience and broaden us as people.”
While Rose Marie is shaped by her residential school ordeal, Crate doesn’t want people to think of Black Apple is a depressing tale. There’s an element of magical realism as Rose Marie has psychic gifts that allow her to see the future and the past through dreams and visions. There’s also a love story and a mystery in the book, along with themes of faith and belonging.
“There’s complexity, and I think it’s ultimately uplifting,” said Crate, who painted the nuns of St. Mark’s in nuanced shades of grey — from tyrannical Sister Joan, to merciful Sister Grace, who cares for Rose Marie, the person, as well as her immortal soul.
Although the now Calgary-based Crate learned about First Nations cultures as a child when her her father (of Irish-Scotch and aboriginal heritage) taught at reserve schools in B.C. and Alberta, she still worried some people would feel she was appropriating an indigenous voice with her character of Rose Marie.
Crate felt better after two editors of aboriginal heritage read her novel and found it accurate and powerful. The book was also called “moving” in a positive review in Quill & Quire.
“I would like to think that we’ve gotten past the idea that a person can only write about their own experience. If you do your research and are respectful (of cultures), you can write about characters who come from a lot of different places,” she said.
The author, who retired from teaching English at RDC in 2013, feels fortunate to have her book published by Simon and Schuster at a time when few new novels are making the cut. Crate is already working on a new writing project that she said isn’t related to a First Nations experience.
Black Apple is available at Sunworks, Chapters, Amazon and other booksellers.