A dramatic and lyrical coming-of-age novel about a young Blackfoot girl who grows up in the residential school system on the Canadian prairies.
Torn from her home and delivered to St. Mark’s Residential School for Girls by government decree, young Rose Marie finds herself in an alien universe where nothing of her previous life is tolerated, not even her Blackfoot name. For she has entered into the world of the Sisters of Brotherly Love, an order of nuns dedicated to saving the Indigenous children from damnation. Life under the sharp eye of Mother Grace, the Mother General, becomes an endless series of torments, from daily recitations and obligations to chronic sickness and inedible food. And then there are the beatings. All the feisty Rose Marie wants to do is escape from St. Mark’s. How her imagination soars as she dreams about her lost family on the Reserve, finding in her visions a healing spirit that touches her heart. But all too soon she starts to see other shapes in her dreams as well, shapes that warn her of unspoken dangers and mysteries that threaten to engulf her. And she has seen the rows of plain wooden crosses behind the school, reminding her that many students have never left here alive.
Set during the Second World War and the 1950s, Black Apple is an unforgettable, vividly rendered novel about two very different women whose worlds collide: an irrepressible young Blackfoot girl whose spirit cannot be destroyed, and an aging yet powerful nun who increasingly doubts the value of her life. It captures brilliantly the strange mix of cruelty and compassion in the residential schools, where young children are forbidden to speak their own languages and given Christian names. As Rose Marie matures, she finds increasingly that she knows only the life of the nuns, with its piety, hard work and self-denial. Why is it, then, that she is haunted by secret visions—of past crimes in the school that terrify her, of her dead mother, of the Indigenous life on the plains that has long vanished? Even the kind-hearted Sister Cilla is unable to calm her fears. And then, there is a miracle, or so Mother Grace says. Now Rose is thrust back into the outside world with only her wits to save her.
With a poet’s eye, Joan Crate creates brilliantly the many shadings of this heartbreaking novel, rendering perfectly the inner voices of Rose Marie and Mother Grace, and exploring the larger themes of belief and belonging, of faith and forgiveness.
Black Apple 1 Baby Bird PAPA OPENED THE DOOR slowly. “What do you want?” he said in English.
“I’m Father Alphonses,” a white man’s voice said. Then came a stream of sound. Rose, cross-legged on the floor while Mama braided her hair, made out just a few of the words. “School,” “must,” “law” louder than the rest.
Mama stopped braiding. “Lie down with Kiaa-yo,” she hissed, pushing Rose towards the nest of hides. Mama stood, pressing herself against the wall where the men couldn’t see. Catching Rose’s eye, she signalled her to pull the hide over her head.
Under the fur, Rose couldn’t make out the words anymore. Kiaa-yo threw out his arms and legs, making crying sounds, so Rose pushed up the soft cover with one hand and put a finger in his mouth, letting him suck.
“You’d better leave,” Papa said.
“We’ll bring in the RCMP,” one of them yelled back.
She peeked out, and that’s when it happened. Oh, Papa with his what can I do? look stepped backward into the house, no longer fierce, his colours breaking apart like the reflection of the moon in runoff water.
The men barged in, but Mama stepped forward and stood in front of them.
“Mrs. Whitewater, I’m here to escort your daughter to St. Mark’s Residential School for Girls,” said the man with the white stripe at his throat. “This is Mr. Higgins, the Indian agent. Now if you’ll just get—ah, there she is.” He pulled the hide back on Rose and Kiaa-yo.
Mama started coughing. The lard man pushed her aside. Oh, now Mama was changing just like Papa, her colour draining.
She ran to Mama, let her mother hold her against her soft body, rocking gently.
“Rose,” Mama whispered, “my little Sinopaki.”
“No packing necessary. All her clothing will be provided,” the man with the white stripe said, but Mama wouldn’t let her go, and Rose wouldn’t let go of Mama. The man grasped Rose’s arm with cold fingers, but she pulled away. Kiaa-yo screamed.
She flew to the door, where Papa slumped against the wall. He was mad and scared and just like sand spilling out of an old cloth bag. But suddenly he stood up straight and stepped in front of her. He stopped her from reaching the door.
He opened his lips, but the words caught in his mouth. Nothing came out but spit. He didn’t say it, but Why did I stop you? splattered over his face.
* * *
“Hurry up, Rose,” the lard man behind her yelled.
Walking between these strangers, these bad men, she gulped and burned. They had come to her house, and now they were taking her away. She wanted to run, but her feet were wobbly and all wrong.
Mama and Papa had told her that men might be coming, but they hadn’t said she would have to go all alone, that they would stay behind. These a-ita-pi-ooy were stealing her. People eaters. She cried into her hands, snot-slimy. Ahead, the stripe man was a black smear against the old carriage road.
A machine sat on the side of the road. Car. She had seen cars before, had even been in a big one called a “truck” with her mama, Mama’s sister Aunt Angelique, and her new husband, Forest Fox Crown. The truck growled and chewed the ground. It charged way too fast, making trees uproot and fly by the windows. No, she wouldn’t get in this car.
The lard man came up behind her, opened the front door, and wedged himself behind the wheel. The stripe man pulled the back door open and pushed his cold hand against her shoulder. “Get in, Rose.”
Oh, and she had to. She scooted along the seat as far away from him as she could get. The car smelled bad. Not tree, water, moss, meat, blood, or berry. Like the stink that blew in from that mining town to the west, that Black Apple.
He climbed in the front next to the lard man and turned to her. “By the way, I’m Father Alphonses. This is Mr. Higgins,” his voice way too loud.
Mr. Higgins said nothing. He acted like he couldn’t see her anymore. The car snorted and they jerked down the road, trees and bushes whooshing by.
“Papa,” she cried.
“Quiet, Rose,” Father Alphonses said.
“Jesus Bloody Christ!” Mr. Higgins shouted as the car bounced and they all shot to the roof. “Excuse me, Father, but these shit roads are wrecking the undercarriage. Excuse me for saying so.”
The backseat squeaked under her bum. Rose threw all her weight onto her feet, half standing. The car turned suddenly and she tumbled back. The squeaking under her was terrible, the sound of a baby bird crying out for its mother and flapping its bony wings in her throat. The car rumbled onto that great grey road.
They drove faster, and the bird cried even louder, underneath and inside her. Its mama didn’t hear, couldn’t answer, wouldn’t come. She kept swallowing so she wouldn’t throw up.
“Clean sheets,” Father Alphonses said, pretend-friendly. “You’ll like that. And there will be other children your age. You’ll learn manners and discipline, but most important of all, Rose, the holy sisters will teach you the Word of God. You will be saved. Do you know what saved means?”
Bird bones in her throat. She could hardly breathe, so she put her head down on the floor and pushed her feet up over the seat. Closing her eyes, she tried to fly away, but her head throbbed and throw-up pushed from her belly down to her throat. She swallowed it back, one foot against the door handle.
“Stop that.” Father Alphonses’ voice was full of thistles. “Sit up properly.”
No, she wouldn’t. Not even if her head burst open on the car floor, a big fat puffball. Behind her eyes, she jumped in Napi’s river and paddled around, water shooting up her nose until she choked and sputtered, and Mr. Higgins said, “What’s she doing back there?” Rose put her face back underwater trying to swim away from those men, but when she came up for air, she was still in the car—they were all still in the car.
“Sit up, Rose.”
The baby bird started calling out again and it sounded like Mama, Papa, Mama, Papa over and over, and Father Alphonses said, “Stop that,” so she shut her mouth and held her breath, diving deep to get away from the bird and the men and the thistles.
The car rumbled to a stop.
Sitting up, she peered out the window. Aunt Angelique’s Reserve! Oh, they had driven east and she knew where they were. There was the band office, and there, the church, with kids, mamas, papas, grandmas, and grandpas everywhere. She spotted Aunt Angelique’s round red-checked skirt. The youngest two of her six new stepchildren clung to Angelique’s hands.
“Na-a,” she cried, pressing against the glass. Aunt Angelique didn’t hear, so she pounded her fist and screamed, “Na-a!”
“Quiet!” Father Alphonses said, reaching over and cuffing her across the head.
She didn’t care what he did, that stupid mean stripe man with cold hands!
“Na-a!” she screamed.
Mr. Higgins pulled up a button on his car door. “I’m going to check with the bus driver, Father. Get her to shut up and stop—”
She pulled up the button on her door, pushed out, and ran. “Aunt Angelique!”
Auntie turned. She opened her arms, and Rose tumbled into the aroma of wood smoke and delicious imis-tsi-kitan, her face pressed to Auntie’s soft belly.
When she opened her eyes and looked around, she saw kids being bustled towards two yellow buses. Boys bunched outside the doors of one bus, girls outside the other. A piece of ice shivered down her back.
“There you are,” said Father Alphonses.
“No!” She grabbed the soft flesh at Aunt Angelique’s hips and clung.
“Ow!” cried Auntie. Rose’s little stepcousins backed up and stared. “Sinopaki, let go.” Angelique pried Rose’s fingers off and placed her broad hand on the nape of Rose’s neck. “Kaakoo!” she ordered, steering her towards the bus. “You have to go to school.”
Father Alphonses made a throat sound. He was right behind her. She had nowhere to run.
“Bye-bye, Sinopaki.” Bending, Aunt Angelique rubbed a thick cheek against her nose. Then she stepped away and grabbed the hands of her own children, her new children who were Forest Fox Crown’s and not really hers at all!
Eyes on the dirty black-licorice steps, she climbed into the bus. Kids were squeezed in everywhere. That awful Father Alphonses plunked himself down on the front seat, so she pushed to the very back and squished beside a bony girl with big teeth.
So many kids! She had seen some of them before on visits to the Reserve, had played with a few of them when they had waving arms and flying feet. But today these girls were scrubbed shiny, their hair pulled into tight braids. She touched her own hair. Mama hadn’t been able to finish braiding it. The bad men had come, and now it was unravelling.
All around her the girls were quiet, each pair of eyes stuck to the green seat directly in front. Small girls huddled close to bigger ones. Rose spotted Aunt Angelique’s two oldest stepdaughters sitting in the front row across from Father Alphonses. They turned to look at her, but they didn’t nod or smile. “Your auntie isn’t our real mother,” they had told her at the wedding. “You’re not our cousin.” She wiped her nose on the back of her hand and swallowed down the baby bird still flapping in her throat.
The bus shuddered and moved away from mamas, papas, grandpas, grandmas, and Aunt Angelique, some of them waving kerchiefs, flying patches of colour that grew smaller and smaller until they disappeared, like fireflies going out. Soon there was just a plume of dust billowing into the too-blue sky.
She turned to the front. Hills rose and fell, and Rose’s tummy rose and fell too. Cottonwoods and wolf willows thinned until ahead in the distance was nothing but a line of yellow grasses drawn between the road and a big empty sky. Nothing but space. The bus was taking them to nowhere.
Joan Crate draws on first-hand knowledge of and sympathy for Indigenous cultures to write Black Apple, a dramatic and lyrical coming-of-age novel about a young Blackfoot girl who grows up in the residential school system on the Canadian prairies. The novel captures the strange mix of cruelty and compassion in these schools, as it shows the perspective of two very different women whose worlds collide during this time in Canadian history.
Topics & Questions for Discussion:
1. Discuss the image of a baby bird and its relation to Rose Marie at the beginning of the novel.
2. Chapter 2 introduces Mother Grace as work-weary. Do you sympathize with her? As the novel progresses, how does your opinion of Mother Grace change?
3. Upon their arrival at St. Mark’s, the students are all given “proper names.” However, Anataki resists, secretly keeping her Blackfoot name. Discuss the significance of this act of rebellion. How does Rose Marie’s friendship with Anataki affect Rose Marie throughout the novel?
4. Rose Marie “felt hot and tingly-itchy sitting in the too-big desk in a colourless classroom, and sometimes she saw that new sister with the bunched-up skirt who always disappeared again. Maybe she was seeing backwards, at what people used to be. It made her want to run, but she wasn’t allowed to run inside the school.” What is the significance of Rose Marie’s visions? How does her perception of these visions change throughout the novel?
5. Though Mother Grace and the other nuns work hard to ensure that Rose Marie has a comprehensive religious education, they neglect to teach her many practical things about growing up. In what ways, both physical and emotional, does the nuns’ neglect impact Rose Marie and the other students of St. Mark’s?
6. Sister Cilla compares herself to Rose Marie when she says, “It’s all right. I’m stuck here too. . . . You make your bed, you lie in it.” Do you think this is an apt comparison? What are the similarities and differences between Sister Cilla’s and Rose Marie’s journeys?
7. Mother Grace takes a special interest in Rose Marie, believing that keeping her from her family is part of what “God most assuredly intended.” Does her belief justify her actions?
8. Compare the two main settings of the novel: St. Mark’s and the town of Black Apple. How does Rose Marie’s education at St. Mark’s prepare / fail to prepare her for life outside the school?
9. Discuss Mother Grace’s relationship with Father Patrick. Compare her first letter to him (beginning on page 34), to her last letter. What does this relationship reveal about Mother Grace’s character?
10. Discuss Rose Marie’s statement: “Though she had been beaten, locked up, and made fun of at school, she had not been hurt in any other way, like the big-eyed boy who became a young man who went against God’s law and killed himself. She was lucky, even if she didn’t feel it. She should be grateful.” What does this statement reveal about Rose Marie’s education and upbringing?
11. Compare Frank and Cyril. What does each offer Rose Marie? What are their similarities and differences?
12. Discuss the decision that Rose Marie makes at the end of the novel. Was this resolution satisfactory? Why or why not?
13. Race and identity are important themes throughout the novel. Discuss the tension between Rose Marie’s Blackfoot heritage and her Catholic upbringing.
Enhance Your Book Club
Other writers have explored the impact of residential schools on generations of Indigenous people in Canada, including Thomas King, Tompson Highway, and Tracey Lindberg. Discuss any works by these authors (or others) that you have read.
Joan Crate was born in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, and was brought up with pride in her Indigenous heritage. She taught literature and creative writing at Red Deer College, Alberta, for over 20 years. Her first book of poetry, Pale as Real Ladies: Poems for Pauline Johnson, has become a classic. Her first novel, Breathing Water, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Award (Canada) and the Books in Canada First Novel Award in 1989. She is a recipient of the Bliss Carman Award for Poetry and her last book of poetry, SubUrban Legends, was awarded Book of the Year by the Writers’ Guild of Alberta. She lives with her family in Calgary.
“Black Apple describes life in a prairie residential school in the 1940s and 50s, in all its heartbreaking complexity. It is a compelling and powerful novel, with beautifully rendered characters, and a lyricism that speaks to Joan Crate’s background as a poet. An extraordinary achievement.”
– Helen Humphreys, author of The Reinvention of Love and The Evening Chorus
“Clean, tough and tender. Near the end of the residential school system in Canada, Rose Marie enters St. Mark’s and her journey is like a raven, ragged in the wind but flying strong.”
– Eden Robinson, author of Monkey Beach, shortlisted for the Giller Prize
“Black Apple is an achievement, a novel that examines the complexities of the residential school system from the point of view of women, including a young girl who is ripped from her family and an aging Catholic nun who has seen it all. This story of girls, women and the system that controls them grips from the very first pages.”
– Dianne Warren, author of Cool Water, winner of the Governor General’s Award
“Joan Crate takes a compelling and clear-eyed look at this history, setting her coming-of-age tale at a fictionalized institution in the Prairies during the 1940s and ‘50s. . . . Crate doesn’t shrink from the abuses of the residential school system, but she extends her curiosity to both the victims and the perpetrators.”
“Authentic and respectful. . . . The legacy of the residential school and how it separated child from parent is inescapable. As Crate says, it ‘felt like a domineering character.’”
“A heartbreaking tale about struggle, identity and compassion.”
– Canadian Living
“Joan Crate has written a story that will capture reader’s hearts within the first chapter. . . . Black Apple is an emotional powerhouse. Crate’s poetic style of writing adds uniqueness and beauty into a story that is full of repression, loss and the aftermath of these girls who come out of St. Mark’s with no real sense of self. . . . Black Apple joins the continuing effort to break the silence of Canada’s residential schools and bring the truth to light. This may be just a work of fiction, but the story inside is a must read for all of Canada.”
– Red Deer Advocate
“Joan Crate’s story of a Blackfoot girl’s childhood and adolescence spent at a residential school is a strong addition to the body of literature that grows in the wake of this shameful history. . . . Crate’s use of nature imagery to create Rose’s internal world showcases her poetic talent and effectively delineates the divide between Rose’s cultural values and those of the western European world into which she’s been swallowed. . . . Black Apple has an important place on the shelf… demonstrating the cathartic power of literature to teach, reflect and possibly heal.”
– Winnipeg Free Press
“Crate… effectively evokes the emotional trauma of [a] young girl’s separation from her mother, father, and younger brother, as well as the harrowing disorientation of her life at St. Mark’s. . . . . Black Apple [is] both timely and welcome.”
– Quill & Quire
“Crate’s beginnings as a poet are in evidence as she invokes the cold Prairie winters… and the strict, sterile environment of the school. . . . Black Apple should certainly spur discussion. And that, for a society still struggling to come to terms with a shared and troubled history, is its gift.”
– Toronto Star
“Her beautiful writing reflects her love for the landscape and people. . . . VERDICT: Give to teens interested in social injustice and tales about indigenous people.”