A sudden, sharp crack opens Waubgeshig Rice’s Moon of the Crusted Snow. It is the sound of protagonist Evan’s gun, echoing through an otherwise silent Canadian North as a moose is felled. As Evan approaches the bull, he awkwardly performs the Anishinaabe ritual of thanks, dropping tobacco in front of the carcass, an unfamiliar yet comforting process.
But the shattering of the silence is also the figurative sound of some unseen rupture to the south, a calamity that leaves phones and power lines dead, and replaces the general clamour of life with an eerie, chilling silence. The stage for the novel is set. The infrastructure of contemporary life falls away, and Evan and the small community in which he lives are forced to fend for themselves, often by returning to practices many around him have lost.
The novel is thus a refracted series of ruptures: not just the mysterious event that pushes the world into an apocalypse, but also the echoes of the forced assimilation and relocation of so many First Nations peoples. There is, too, the broader undoing of modernity, the seeming impossibility of going backwards from literacy and the ubiquitous technology that now holds life together: plumbing, electricity, fossil fuels, and telecommunications. A difficult question animates this spare, unnerving novel: What might it mean to decolonize modernity?
Rice’s weapon here is the jump cut, the technique from film first transposed to English literature by James Joyce, in which time passes without explicit description. The breaks after each short chapter reveal a steadily accumulating sense of dread. First there is the ordinary: routine disruptions in power or communication in the isolated North, sudden bursts of weather. But then, the silent lines stay dead, and winter approaches with the looming threat of a life without modern convenience. Food begins to be rationed. Two of the community’s members return home from a city to the south, bringing news of widespread violence and chaos as the connective tissue of life tears.
As tempers begin to fray, there is the ominous arrival of Justin Scott, a white man whose uncanny ease and swagger hints at a violent past. The resonance is unmistakable: a threatening, white outsider promises help—protection, know-how, labour—while auguring something much darker. The novel hinges on this doubled apocalypse, the one in fiction, and the one that has already befallen the Anishinaabe and other First Nations and Indigenous peoples in Canada. In the text it is the material infrastructure of life that has suddenly been taken away, but for Evan and his community—and perhaps for Rice as well—it is the cultural infrastructure that was destroyed by colonialism: language, ritual, tradition, and a connection to the land.
That history finds its expression in Aileen, an elder in her eighties who is one of the last remaining members to recall not just the language, but traditional values, beliefs, and forms of medicine. But as the winter sets in and tragedies build, she too succumbs to the cold and is laid to rest in a -storehouse with other frozen cadavers. The lack of power and food also exacerbates the lingering spectres of alcohol abuse and suicide, both of which add to the body count.
That pile of corpses becomes the site of the novel’s most horrific turn, as Justin, the outsider, finally turns to it as a source of food—the consumption of First Nation flesh, a perfectly morbid metaphor that, in less skilled hands, would be a bit too on the nose. But Rice is restrained, and his spare prose effectively keeps explicit horror at bay, preferring the slow, steady build of tension. He tends to evoke rather than describe the sources of fear, creating a thriller-like, page-turning quality that makes the novel a quick, satisfying read. There are certainly times Rice breaks into slightly pedantic asides seemingly for his non-Indigenous audience, which is an unfortunate if perhaps unavoidable distraction.
More generally, though, the novel is intensely claustrophobic. Rice wisely resists the temptation to pull back the lens, keeping his focus on Evan’s community, invoking the outside world with only the barest hints, which heightens the tension. But the emphasis on the small community also enmeshes the reader in the relationships of the novel, most importantly Evan’s connection with his partner, Nicole, and their children. While no other character is afforded the same depth as Evan, the glimmers we are given—of the unsteady leadership of Terry, or Evan’s troubled brother Cam—flesh out the feeling of a tight-knit, shrinking community in the process of reorienting itself.
The narrow focus also marks out in structure
a kind of cultural break. The community’s imbrication in broader Canadian society is severed, but the novel eventually looks at this as a kind of liberation, a restoration of what has been taken and destroyed. By the book’s end, a smaller, thinner community decides to leave the town and return to the lands they were historically forced out of. The reader is left to decide whether it functions better as a kind of projected fantasy or political polemic, an actual ideal of secession—if indeed one is forced to make such choices in literature at all.
This is the work done by speculative fiction and post-apocalyptic fiction in particular. It is the inverse of the prelapsarian fantasy, a chance to imagine what the world might be like if it all went to proverbial hell. As readers we walk a line between imagining the intensely personal—what would I do in this situation?—and contemplating how the impossibly complex networks that form modern society skew life in
a particular way.
Post-apocalyptic works have a particular resonance at the moment. We live in what feels like
a moment of rupture, not just because of the rise of neo-fascism, but also the spectre of climate change. How we adapt to this new terrain will depend on some sort of radical reimagining of the world we have come to know, and it seems unlikely that we can continue to rely on technocratic capitalism as a way out.
But Rice’s novel is less concerned with this broad, global reimagining. Rather, it deliberately focuses on a dislocated people coming to terms with the end of life as we know it. As such,
Moon of the Crusted Snow is punctuated by a series of dreams: images of growing unrest in the community; piles of frozen cadavers foreshadowing the horror to come. The novel itself is a kind of dream, an aesthetic arrangement of what the world might be. In its circuitous blend of past and future, the shackles of both modernity and colonialism are broken by some unseen force, leaving a chance to think about how healing might begin.