For a while now I’ve been morbidly fascinated by Doomsday Preppers. I’ll stick an episode on in the background (it’s on Netflix, at least here in Canada) while eating dinner or doing something else. While it’s good to be prepared for emergencies, the preppers and survivalists featured in the show take this idea to extremes that are equal parts fascinating and horrifying (especially when this obsession ultimately affects a loved one or children). And, of course, their disaster scenario of choice is usually so far-fetched as to be unbelievable … yet there is always that lingering question of, if such a breakdown of society occurred, would they really fare as well as they believe?
I know I’d be screwed….
Moon of the Crusted Snow is technically a post-apocalyptic novel, but only in the same sense that Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse, is post-apocalyptic. Waubgeshig Rice makes this point clear when an elder explains, “Our world isn’t ending. It already ended. It ended when the Zhaagnaash [white people] came into our original home down south on that bay and took it from us.” This is a key point to remember in reading this novel: yes, this is a survival story, but within the wider context in that the story of Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island has been a survival story ever since Contact.
Set in a fictional Anishnaabe community in northern Ontario, Moon of the Crusted Snow chronicles the community’s response to the loss of hydro and food deliveries following an unspecified event in the south. The main character, Evan Whitesky, is a fairly solid member of the community. He has been stockpiling meat for the winter, for he prefers it to the expensive Northern store food, and he does well during the crisis. He keeps his head on the shoulders and helps the councillors and chief maintain order and keep people safe, at least at first. But as the cold winter continues, and a disruptive element from the south arrives, Evan’s dreams become more troubling, and he wonders if his community can keep it together until the spring thaw.
Look, I’m a settler, so it’s not my lane to comment on the portrayal of the Anishnaabe characters or their community in this book. This is Rice’s own people/heritage here, bolstered by his conversations with elders and with people who have lived in even more remote communities. I’ve been to a remote community, and I’m familiar with some of the conditions described here from those visits and from what I hear in media and my students who come from those places. Nevertheless, it’s not what I know. It’s not, indeed, what most Canadians know. For settler readers, this book will hopefully be somewhat eye-opening to the realities of life on a reserve.
What can I comment on? I would say this is a very well-crafted suspense novel. Rice starts with the quiet seclusion of Gaawaandagkoong First Nation: the book opens with Evan hunting by himself in the bush, quietly killing and then butchering a bull moose. This quiet shades into the quiet that comes when the hum of power lines and the buzz of telecommunications falls silent. Then the quiet of a winter backed by people desperately trying to conserve food and power, even as the dead begin to mount. Then, atop all of this, looms the spectre of the wendigo and the white man hungry not just for food, but for power…. The question isn’t just who survives this winter but how and whether or not they can live with themselves and their decisions.
I really like the protagonist. I can’t identify much with him: I’m not a parent, not a hunter or outdoorsman of any kind, definitely not as practical as him. Nevertheless, like I said above, he’s solid. He makes decisions based on necessity but also compassion. He’s somewhat of a leader but also happy to back up others—and one of the ways in which Evan grows in this novel is discovering that capacity for leadership. I love the depiction of his loving relationship with his partner, Nicole, and the way they are raising a family together, keeping their traditions alive and contributing to their community. For a novel that is ultimately about survival in extremes, Moon of the Crusted Snow has many positive depictions of everyday Indigenous success and resilience.
I don’t have any complaints about the length (which is fairly short for a novel). It works well; the pacing is great. My enjoyment of the ending is marred only by the context of reading it in an emergency room (I wasn’t the one ill), so I was tired and not in a great mood, and this book is not a mood-lifter by any means. My other main criticism would be that Rice’s prose tends towards purple at times; I’m not a huge fan of his descriptive or narrative style. This is largely what prevents me from cheering on the book as much as others might: I liked the story, the plot, the characters, but the writing itself leaves me lukewarm.
Overall, definitely recommended, especially if these types of survival stories are more your thing. You want to be in the right mindset to read this one. I loved it for what it is, and it’s a powerful story. But I’m curious to see if Rice’s other work, or future work, might be even better for me.