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From the archives

The Trust Spiral

Restoring faith in the media

Our Feudal Immigration Policy

Why should an accident of birth determine who benefits from citizenship?

Liberal Interpretations

Making sense of Justin Trudeau and his party

Homeward Bound

Waubgeshig Rice continues the story

Christina Turner

Moon of the Turning Leaves

Waubgeshig Rice

Penguin Random House Canada

320 pages, softcover, ebook, and audiobook

Well into Waubgeshig Rice’s Moon of the Turning Leaves, one character remarks to another, “That’s the thing about stories about the end of the world, I guess. . . .You just got to worry about yourself. At first, anyway. But then, if you wanna see the future, if you wanna survive, you gotta find others. If you think you care about the future and your life ends alone, what was it worth?”

This sentiment neatly encapsulates the project Rice has undertaken with his pair of speculative novels focused on a small Anishinaabe community in Northern Ontario. In the first, Moon of the Crusted Snow, from 2018, the power grid suddenly fails without explanation. The residents, living at the end of a 300-kilometre service road, gradually learn that the outage has sparked widespread chaos and societal collapse. Entirely cut off from the wider world, they struggle to survive through the winter as fuel and food supplies dwindle. Although Moon of the Crusted Snow ends with a hopeful reclamation of the traditional knowledge that will enable the Anishinaabek to rebuild in a post-electric world, it is largely focused on the immediate task of survival in the face of apocalypse.

A reconnaissance mission to the south.

Jamie Bennett

Moon of the Turning Leaves takes place twelve years later. The Anishinaabek remain separated, but they now live in a settlement called Shki-dnakiiwin, meaning “new village,” which is built alongside a lake about “a half day’s walk from the crumbling homes and buildings of the old reserve.” They sustain themselves by reusing old materials from Jibwaa —“the time before”— and hunting and fishing in the surrounding area. Evan Whitesky, whose job as a maintenance worker thrust him into a leadership role after the blackout in Moon of the Crusted Snow, is now a respected elder welcoming his first granddaughter into the world on the cusp of the summer solstice. In this way, Moon of the Turning Leaves begins with a more optimistic tone than its predecessor, as new life emerges from landscape and community alike.

But the next generation’s flourishing is far from guaranteed. Early in the novel, Walter, the group’s “eldest survivor,” observes that they have been taking too much from the land and waters. The surrounding territory can no longer sustain them. Six volunteers, including Evan and his fifteen-year-old daughter, Nangohns, undertake a reconnaissance mission to the south, several weeks away by foot. Their task is twofold: they must learn what happened “when the lights went out,” and they must identify a new place to live. In short, they “gotta find others.”

The resulting narrative is much more ambitious than Rice’s previous one. Over the course of the novel, we learn that the Anishinaabe homeland is not the northern territory where the reserve was located. Originally from the north shore of Lake Huron, “where the birch trees grow by the big water,” the community was “pushed up here” by the “zhaagnaashak” (white people), who “took almost all of the fish out of the lakes” and “cut all the trees down.” Thus, the work of relocation is also that of going “back home.”

On their walk, the travellers both imagine and enact a future that is fully Anishinaabe. They sing songs in their language, practise Indigenous spirituality, and harvest food and medicine from the land. As they do so, they look forward to a future where the next generation speaks Anishinaabemowin as its first language, where children grow up in their own families, and where intergenerational knowledge allows people to thrive through the changing seasons. Nangohns, especially, champions this vision. “We’ll still be here after you’re gone,” she reminds her older companions. “And we deserve a say in the world we’re going to live in.”

Nangohns was three when the power went out, and she has very little memory of Jibwaa. But she emerges as a central character in Moon of the Turning Leaves. In one telling scene, her father explains the concept of a pit stop —“just a place to stop and gas up, and maybe take a piss and grab food”— and Nangohns wonders at being “confined in a speeding vehicle” for hours on end. The moment underscores how much the society has changed: such ordinary experiences are now sources of astonishment. Inspired to “keep going,” Nangohns is a fierce protector of her community, willing to fight for conditions in which young people, like her new niece, can thrive.

Indeed, Rice makes it clear that the crumbling of existing power structures — of both the literal power grid and the dominant socio-political systems it made possible — has created space for an Anishinaabe resurgence. At the same time, like many speculative fiction writers, he recognizes that wide-scale collapse allows for the proliferation of extremist ideologies. As the walkers journey south, they encounter increasingly serious threats to their survival, culminating in several violent encounters with a militia known as the Disciples. An organized network of former survivalists, the group was founded by former police officers and soldiers looking to “recapture the original heroic spirit of the white man and reclaim the land for themselves.” Their dream, Nangohns quickly realizes, has “no room for her people.” To take back their territory, the Anishinaabek must overcome the racist entity that seeks to destroy them.

While Moon of the Crusted Snow tells a compelling story, the writing is at times clunky and unsubtle. It is also haphazardly plotted, with long stretches of little to no action followed by a rushed conclusion. Moon of the Turning Leaves is more evenly paced, and Rice ably builds suspense: the plot’s structure as a journey, in which the success of the heroes is always in question, creates a natural momentum that makes for an absorbing read.

The conclusion, however, proves unsatisfying. The stakes are high in the conflict between the travellers and the Disciples, between those nurturing an Indigenous renaissance and a militia of white supremacists who will annihilate anyone who does not think or look like them. All signs point to a final showdown. But that never comes to pass: the epilogue, set several years after the main action, implies the Disciples are no longer a threat without explaining how the Anishinaabek defeated them. Too neat, this ending deflates the tension Rice has so skillfully built.

Perhaps Rice will write a third book that picks up the thread. These characters — and the future they are trying to build — certainly warrant a continued story.

Christina Turner lives in Toronto.