Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann
A priest arrives one day to take young Rose Whitewater away to St. Mark’s, a residential school for native girls. She protests, but it is the law. When she arrives at the school, Rose has her hair cut short, is scrubbed raw, and is given new clothes. She is also given a new name, Rose Marie. The nuns who run the school insist on giving every little girl a woman’s name from the Bible and “Marie” is close enough to “Mary.” World War II is still raging and these residential schools are still viewed as the only way to “civilize” the native children—by removing them from the primitive, “pagan” environment of their parents and tribe. The girls must now speak only English and will only return home in the summers.
Rose Marie hates the place from the outset. The other girls pick on her because she is small. Her only friend is her classmate Anne. For the nuns, Rose Marie is nothing but trouble and gets frequently punished, even beaten. But she is smart as well. The head of the school, Mother Grace, takes Rose Marie under her wing and gradually she calms down. But as soon as she enters the school, she begins seeing shadows and shapes, especially at night, but not always. A young nun who comes and goes. A hulking man. Children’s voices wail from the walls. And she has visions, vivid with smells and tastes. At one point during that first year, her mother comes in a dream. The next day, Rose Marie is told that her mother has died. Having no mother at home, the decision is made that she must stay year-round at the school. And so she does. For over ten years.
Black Apple is divided into three parts—the first year, a year some six years later when Rose Marie has her first period and reveals her visions to Mother Grace, and a period of three months six years after that, when Rose Marie is in the mining town of Black Apple to serve in the parish church before becoming a novitiate nun. Each section portrays Rose Marie convincingly at her age: the hyperactive first-grader, the over-stimulated adolescent, the fearful young woman confronting the world. It is this last part that brings Black Apple full circle. Angry and frightened, Rose Marie is put on a bus and finds herself plunked down in a dirty, vice-ridden place full of drunk miners, racism against natives, frequent violence—and men, both good and bad. And it is there that she must choose her future.
Author Crate specifies as little as possible about time and place. We don’t know the exact year the narrative starts or the exact location of the school, only that it is the mid-1940s and somewhere on the Prairies, most likely in Alberta. Crate is not trying to enumerate every crime of the now-infamous residential school system, although she does not flinch from describing them. Rather, she is showing the progress of a girl who survives the system. She shows the teachers and administrators in the residential school project as human, with individual conflicts and suffering, mistakes and regrets. Not all good, not all bad. The abusers are there, certainly but so are the sincere believers.
Most distinctive about “Black Apple is its use of spirituality, both Native and Christian. The swirl of prayer, visions, omens, and ghosts is confusing at first, starts to seem contrived, then becomes elevating and rises to illuminate as whatever forces inhabit Rose Marie resist the authoritarian confines of “civilization” and Christianity. As such, Black Apple is a tribute to a tenacious Native spiritual heritage that still saturates the land and its people.
Black Apple is published by Simon and Schuster.