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Moon of the Turning Leaves coverWaubgeshig Rice’s Moon of the Turning Leaves is the sequel to his 2019 novel Moon of the Crusted Snow, a brilliant and at times harrowing book detailing the experiences of an Anishinaabe community in northern Canada as the apocalypse hits and they struggle through their first winter. I never expected there to be a sequel, because Moon of the Crusted Snow felt like a perfectly crafted story, an open-ended and hopeful narrative about the end of the colonial era—what many have described as an ongoing apocalypse for Indigenous peoples since 1492—that looked toward a decolonial future. That future, the truly post-colonial period, began with Evan Whitesky and Nicole McCloud, their children Maiingan and Nangohns, and the remainder of their Anishinaabek community leaving the rez for a new home, where Anishinaabe ways of being in community with each other and with the land could grow and flourish. [1]

I was somewhat surprised, then, to learn four years later of a sequel that would continue this family and community’s story. It seemed somehow unnecessary, in the way that so many sequels do in our times of franchise IP obsession. But the revival was also a testament to how Rice’s powerful apocalyptic novel had touched readers, and what I hadn’t fully considered, before reading the sequel, is that it would offer an important chance for Rice to tell the story not just of Indigenous survival (metaphorized elegantly in Moon of the Crusted Snow by Evan’s struggle with the white survivalist Justin Scott when he arrives on the rez and takes power), but the next step, too—of Indigenous growth toward a thriving and truly post-colonial life. What results from Rice’s effort to tell the story of Indigenous life beyond the apocalypse is a pleasantly quiet novel that is as concerned with the daily mechanics of life in a world without modern technology as it is with both the efforts Evan’s community makes at cultural rebirth and the quest at the heart of the novel: the search for their pre-colonial homeland.

Moon of the Turning Leaves begins ten years after the first novel. Evan, his family, and a small group of survivors of that first apocalyptic winter have long since left the rez to “start over,” embracing traditional methods of living in and with the environment. They’ve built a new community called Shki-dnakiiwin from the ground up, complete with family homes and a central lodge for community gathering—all built from a mix of materials scavenged from houses built in the before times, or during the Jibwaa as the Anishinaabek call it, alongside natural materials from the landscape. Despite their best efforts, however, their decade-long tenure in these woods has driven the game further and further away and their little lake is being quickly depleted of fish. Recognizing this, the community decides to send out an expedition—led by the middle-aged men Evan, Cal, and J.C., and a handful of young adults (Evan’s teenage daughter Nangohns, who is the community’s best hunter, and a paired couple in their twenties, Tyler and Amber)—to find a new place to call home. But really, they seek a homecoming, to relocate to their band’s original homeland, Wiigwaaswaatigoong—or “the place near that big lake where all the birch trees are,” as the elder Walter calls it—somewhere on the north shore of Lake Huron. For centuries the Anishinaabe have been displaced from their traditional lands and forced into communities far removed from the Great Lakes; the elders believe it is time to return to what was taken from them.

The majority of the novel concerns the group’s expedition south, or Zhaawanong, and offers Evan, Nangohns, and the others the chance to learn first-hand what happened to the rest of the world. There are no easy answers—in fact, there are no answers, just speculation, rumor, and the emptiness of the one city they come across. For roughly half the novel, the expedition meets no other humans, just the wilderness and the kind of abandoned ruins of “civilization” that have become familiar in our media landscape, obsessed as it is with a post-apocalyptic vision of collapse. Things remain eerily quiet along the trek, a readerly experience that is both serene and anxiety-inducing, with the threat of the post-apocalypse subgenre’s obsession with sudden and violent action ever looming. Rice plays with our expectations, only etching mysterious scenes that hint at what might have happened to northern Canada’s cities, and instead giving us bears stealing packs or an expedition member suddenly breaking his leg.

The latter leads to a typical but heartbreaking survivalist scenario: with J.C.’s leg broken and not healing, the whole expedition is threatened, and he chooses to kill himself. But, contrary to those nihilistic genre expectations, when the expedition does meet people they are exactly the right kind: a thriving community of Anishinaabe people, full of elders and children, who revitalized traditional lifeways and all speak fluent Anishinaabemowin. There is no catch. There are no dark secrets. But this town, Saswin, is not Wiigwaaswaatigoong; and so, bolstered by their fortuitous discovery of a community living in just the way they are, the expeditioners continue on Zhaawanong toward the Great Lakes. This final third of the novel skips along briskly, with the expedition being shot at, then taken captive by, a gang of white nationalist survivalist guys who literally worship guns. One of them, however, is half-Anishinaabe, and so shoots the others to save the expedition; he joins them, but his betrayal leads other members of this gun cult—which has an army’s worth of members down in Michigan, appropriately enough—to seek out the group, leading to a short, deadly confrontation. Despite tragedy, the novel ends with the expedition’s arrival at Wiigwaaswaatigoong—where another, even larger, Anishinaabe community waits to welcome them home.

Moon of the Turning Leaves is a novel about birth, death, and all the struggles of life in between—at least, as they are carried out in Indigenous communities newly emerging from colonialism’s shadow. Rice’s characters reimagine what life could be for a people whose lifeways were devastated by the apocalypse of colonialism, and for whom this new apocalypse that has ended the Jibwaa offers an opportunity for restoration, reclamation, and renewal. Rice gestures to this in his titles, which translate Anishinaabemowin temporal terms into English: moon of the crusted snow, moon of the turning leaves. Winter, autumn—a cycle in progress. This novel sees the sun set on Shki-dnakiiwin, but a new one rises as the community seeks and returns to its traditional home. So, too, the novel shows how time cycles through the generations of the community at its heart.

Where the earlier novel followed Evan Whitesky almost exclusively, in Moon of the Turning Leaves he is sidelined for a narrative focus on his now-teenage daughter, Nangohns, who barely remembers the Jibwaa. For Nangohns, the ruins of the Jibwaa are merely fascinating; they are not tied up with nostalgia and the pain of colonialism as they are for Evan, Cal, and J.C. Nangohns longs for a world steeped in Anishnaabe knowledge and tradition, and she speaks Anishinaabemowin more regularly than her father and other expedition members. Nangohns lives on the temporal precipice between Jibwaa and present. She is a member of the emergent Anishinaabek world after apocalypse who has memories, and perhaps some ways of thinking and being, that have been inherited from that earlier time.

The novel pushes even further into the future of the Anishinaabek. It both begins and ends with the next generation—that is, the first generation born after Jibwaa, first with a prologue about the birth of Evan’s granddaughter and Nangohns’s niece, Waawaaskone, and then with an epilogue about Waawaaskone on the cusp of her adulthood in Wiigwaaswaatigoong. Moon of the Turning Leaves is therefore a book of renewal. Waawaaskone is born into a community birthed from the traumatic death of the colonial world, one that is barely holding on, seeking a way to revitalize Anishinaabe ways; but she comes of age in a community that thrives in its traditional homeland. Notably, the dialogue in the epilogue is all spoken in Anishinaabemowin. While the language is used regularly in dialogue throughout the novel, it is almost always then translated or at least explained in Rice’s third-person narration; but the epilogue doesn’t make these concessions. The story has shifted out of reach of the Anglophone world, of the Jibwaa we live in, into a world where Anishinaabemowin—a language today classified by UNESCO as “severely endangered”—is the vernacular.

Rice imagines, then, an Anishinaabe future that is, in its very imagining, in its confrontation with the whiteness of the genre—metaphorized here in the form of the white gun cult—a kind of renewal. Moon of the Turning Leaves is a powerful, if unexpected, sequel to a brilliant novel. It demonstrates Rice’s continued ability to breathe further life into the long-suffering post-apocalypse genre.

Endnotes

[1] While Rice previously used the spelling “Anishinaabeg” in Moon of the Crusted Snow, he has shifted to “Anishinaabek” in this book, perhaps to better reflect his First Nation’s orthographic choices. The Anishinaabek are a group of multiple Indigenous nations and communities, bound together by shared cultural and linguistic bonds, spread across eastern Canada and the northern, eastern, and upper midwest of the United States; their original homeland is around the Great Lakes. They include, among others, the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potowatomi. Anishinaabek is the singular of Anishinaabe (which in English is often also used as the adjective form, e.g. “Anishinaabe culture”); their language (really a dialect continuum) is called Anishinaabemowin and is often referred to in English as Ojibwe. [return]



Sean Guynes (he/him/@docchocula ) is a writer, editor, and SFF critic who lives in upstate New York. His shorter writing has appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, Strange Horizons, Tor.com, World Literature Today, and elsewhere.
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