What a damn fine book Jonny Appleseed is. That’s my eight-word review. Here are some more words:
When I finished reading this debut novel by Joshua Whitehead (an Oji-Cree/nehiyaw, Two-Spirit/Indigiqueer member of the Peguis First Nation [Treaty 1]), I remember thinking about first person narratives. I haven’t been reading a lot of them, and some of the ones I have read in the last year have grated on my nerves a little. I think novel-length stories told from an “I” are very hard to pull off. It’s hard to successfully represent an authentic-seeming individual’s voice and have a narrative that makes sense in terms of the information that limited perspective has for the plot. This is especially true in my experience when an author also chooses to tell the story in present tense. Done well, I am often incredibly moved by first-person narratives and remark on the artistry of representing the world from a particular person’s perspective. Not done well (which seems like the case more of the time, perhaps attesting to the difficulty of getting the voice right), I find them tough to get through or even unbearable.
Jonny Appleseed is the most poignant reminder I’ve had in a while about how powerful and effecting a first person narrative can be. Jonny, the Two-Spirit main character, carries the book with his raw, hilarious, and insightful voice. In a character- and relationship-driven novel devoid of a lot of what is conventionally considered “plot” (this is not a bad thing in my mind), the voice of Jonny is what holds the story and the reader along for the ride. Jonny Appleseed is one of those seemingly infinitely quotable books I found myself frequently underlining. Jonny has so much to say and you just want to share his words.
Some of my favourite quotes from Jonny were:
“Humility is just a humiliation you loved so much it transformed.”
“I texted him back with a simple ‘No.’ I made an emphasis to punctuate my text. In the digital universe, a punctuated sentence is as powerful a slap as slamming down the landline.”
“Funny how an NDN ‘love you’ sounds more like ‘I’m in pain with you.’”
“But I just laughed and I think he got mad—I wish he knew that when an NDN laughs, it’s because they’re applying a fresh layer of medicine on an open wound.”
“I never had to tell him, that was how I knew I love him—I never had to tell him.”
The story technically takes place over a week, but in reality it spans a much larger time period as it meanders through Jonny’s memories. It’s a non-linear book that feels very much like the way a mind goes to and fro from the past to the present and from topic to topic. Jonny thinks about his kokum, mom, his great first love Tias, coming out, and growing up. In the present Jonny is preparing to go back to the rez for his mom’s boyfriend’s funeral, hence the predominance of the past in his mind. He’s been living in Winnipeg, living his urban “NDN glitter princess” and scraping by by doing cyber-sex work. Now he’s set to go back to where he grew up, a prospect that is complicated emotionally and practically for him, not least of which is how difficult it’s going to be to scrounge up the funds to pay for a ride. He never even liked his mom’s boyfriend anyway.
A lot of the novel focuses on the women in Jonny’s life and the impact they’ve had on him. One particularly memorable story is about his aunt, and how she reacts to a black bear they find in her backyard, eating out of her garbage can. Jonny recalls:
She was fearless, that woman; she walked outside barefoot and marched right up to that bear and struck him on the nose with her broom, once, twice, bam. And then that great bear stood up on its hind legs, its claws the length of scissors, and grunted; but my aunt, tough as nails, smacked that bear again on its head and yelled at the top of her voice, ‘Git! G’wan you, out, out, git!’ The bear stared at her quizzically for a few seconds, then lowered himself and jogged back into the bush. My aunt came back inside, her feet red as the beans she cooked in her chili, and dusted herself off as if it were nothing.
He also thinks often of his kokum (grandmother). One lovely story is her reaction when he nervously comes out to her on the phone. Through his crying and hiccupping, she tells him “You done, m’boy, or what? … Heck, like I didn’t even know, Jonny. Why you think I gave you them earrings last year? … your kokum old but she ain’t dull. You’s napêw iskwewisehot, m’boy, Two-Spirit.”
These are just some snapshots of this book that I loved. It was one of those reads that sucked me in right from the first page and didn’t let go. Joshua Whitehead writes elegantly and exactingly about Jonny’s state of mind and his journey, to moving and profound effect. Jonny Appleseed is funny, on-point, and heart-breaking, often all at the same time. Don’t believe me? Did you know it was on the 2018 Giller Longlist and a finalist for the GG’s Literary Award for English-language Fiction? Now get reading Jonny Appleseed! Find it from the publisher Arsenal Pulp Press here.