Joseph Boyden's second novel, Through Black Spruce (2008) follows the descendants of the Bird family of his acclaimed first novel, Three Day Road (2001), and it, too, uses a cyclical structure. The narrative moves between the experience of James Bay Cree bush pilot Will Bird, who contemplates his life while lying comatose in a northern Ontario hospital bed, and his niece Annie Bird, who sits at Will's bedside and tells him the story of her search for her sister Suzanne, which moves between Moosonee, Toronto and New York.
Like the works of contemporary Canadian writers Eden Robinson and Thomas King, Through Black Spruce does not focus principally on presenting the traditions of the First Nations group he represents, nor does it emphasize their past and struggle to survive institutional racism, marginalization and the cultural destruction and widespread abuse of the residential school system. While the novel alludes to this terrible legacy of 20th century First Nations life, Through Black Spruce centres instead upon the present and future of the James Bay Cree, and the challenges and possibilities for community renewal these offer. In this respect, the novel explores the interaction of traditional culture with global and urban opportunities and influences. As a bush pilot with a website for American hunters, Will connects people and places, though his grasp of technology is often tenuous and a source of humour throughout the book. Annie, following her sister through the glamorous, deceptive world of international fashion modelling, is an even more transitional figure: her story spans urban glass towers and poverty-stricken shelters, wilderness trap lines and her isolated northern hometown. Ultimately, while Will and Annie rejoice in their connections to family, tradition and the land, they will continue to cross physical and cultural borders.
Through Black Spruce does not shy away from the threats besetting many First Nations peoples today, from alcohol and drug abuse, gang violence and drug running, to cultural appropriation, cultural loss and frayed family connections. However, Boyden's representation of contemporary Cree life challenges stereotype and pessimism, stressing the strength and adaptability of Cree culture as it recovers from the calamities of the past and continues to grow.
Through Black Spruce won the 2008 Scotiabank Giller Prize, was named the CBA Libris Fiction Book of the Year for 2009, and was longlisted for the 2009 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. It solidified Joseph Boyden's status as one of the most accomplished Canadian writers of the early 21st century.