Flawlessness isn’t always a good thing in fiction
Moon of the Crusted Snow is a 2018 apocalyptic thriller-ish novel by Waubgeshig Rice that the CanLit crowd (aka, the Canadian literature in-group) drooled over. The novel is set in a remote Anishinaabe community in northern Ontario which becomes even more cut off from civilization after the lights go out following an ambiguous apocalyptic event.
A book of flawless prose that takes its time
I love me a good slow-burner with tons of atmosphere and Moon delivered that. In spite of the novel’s tension, the slow pace of the story and its precisely written prose somehow relaxed me. In contrast to more stylistic prose, like you get in The Road – another slow-burning apocalyptic narrative – Moon’s prose was exact and grammatical. Flawless, even. As the reader, I felt myself slow down to absorb it at a pace that matched the slower pace of life that the characters lived up in their far north community. I also liked how the apocalypse was never quite named – it works to amplify the metaphor of it, and intensifies the focus on the character’s themselves.
The villain was too flawed and the hero not flawed enough
Both Evan, the hero of the story, and Justin, the antagonist, were one-dimensional characters. Evan was just plain good. Justin was just plain bad. For Evan, there was no (or very little) inner turmoil that predated the events of the story. He had no weaknesses. He was a good father, a good husband and a standup member of the community. Where’s the personal struggle? A protagonist must have a personal weakness – a wound of some kind – in order for the reader to connect with them at a deeper level. This is one of the basic tenets of storytelling. Was he terrified to fail his family? Was his marriage falling apart? Did he have some inner personal demon he was fighting with? For this reason, I couldn’t quite connect with Evan at the level I wanted to. He became a vessel through which to tell the story. It seemed to me that the (real-world) historical pain and trauma the community suffered as a result of their displacement was used as a stand-in to create that dimension for the character, which it did in a way, but not enough. The same is true for Justin. The strongest villains for me are those who have moral ambiguities. An all-bad villain with no humanity is a cliche – he might as well have had a mustache that he curls. And while it was fun to hate Justin – because, man, I hate that guy – I think it makes for a more engaging reading experience when the bad characters have some good intentions too. Because isn’t it true that the worst evils of men – the ones that we have the hardest time reconciling – are those that start from a place of “good intentions”?
Take me deeper
Overall, I’d recommend this book. I mentioned The Road earlier because I think this book is similar in a lot of ways, starting with the apocalypse that we never quite learn the cause of. But unlike The Road, which has a protagonist whose personal wounds – a dead wife and a child he’s barely keeping alive – pull the reader through the otherwise slow-burning story in a way that makes you root for them harder. If Moon tied this story more tightly to the personal struggle of a wounded man trying to protect his family from an enemy more powerful than him, it would have been a much more affecting read. What if, for example, the community really did run out of food and Evan had to choose between his neighbours and his family? Deeper questions like these never quite got explored. That said, I found that as I read the epilogue, a warm feeling of hope swelled through me.
And the moral of the story is
Be cruel to the hero of your story, even if you think he’s been through enough already.