Jonny Appleseed Book Review

by Megan Parsons

Jonny Appleseed  Book Review

Published Friday July 12, 2019 

Written by Megan Parsons for Savant-Garde

Joshua Whitehead’s Jonny Appleseed is, at its core, a coming of age story centred on the life of Jonny, a Two-Spirit Indigiqueer cybersex worker, who moved from the reservation where he grew up to Winnipeg and his journey home after his step-father dies. Two-Spirit is an umbrella term describing an Indigenous person who identifies as a third gender (or as gender nonconforming). The novel is written in short non-linear chapters that read like diary entries and the chapter’s narrative shift between dreams, memories, and current events. The novel is less concerned about traditional plot and more concerned about the exploration of Jonny as a character. These stories’ main focus is Jonny’s relationships: his relationship with his childhood friend (and the love of his life) Tias, his close relationship with his kokum (grandmother), his complex relationship with his mother, his rocky relationship with his step father, his non-existent relationship with his biological father, and most importantly his relationship with his self. His relationship with his sexuality and his identity is the one constant in every chapter.

The novel walks the fine line between being both honest and empathetic on polarizing subjects such as gender expression, sex work, and Indigenous issues. Jonny’s sex work is neither romanticized nor shamed. The reader sees Jonny react with dingy to the sometimes scary men who disrespect his culture by asking him to dress in stereotypical Indigenous costumes but they also see him thoroughly enjoy expressing his sexuality with others. Jonny is written sympathetically but he is not without his flaws. His affair with Tias is one example of the kind of questionable things he does throughout the book. Jonny’s Indigenous identity is explored throughout the novel especially in memories of his childhood on the reservation. While these memories are sometimes sad there is an element of vibrancy in them that bring colour to the story. This nuanced characterization of Jonny adds depth to the novel.

Whitehead’s history as a poet shines through in every line in the entire novel. At certain points I was taken aback by the poetic writing and found myself re-reading sentences in awe of them. An example of this poignancy is as simple as the line, “I am my own best medicine”. As a result of this style the novel does not have a directed plot and some may find this irritating. The openness of how Whitehead writes and his poetic language might bore some readers; if you are looking for the traditional hero’s journey this story is not for you. Additionally, since the narrative is so focused on Jonny’s life the other characters may seem one dimensional. I have no real problem with this because it captures the realness of real relationships. Often times we see others from one side and it makes many of the relationships in Jonny’s life ring true.

Overall, Jonny Appleseed tells an important story. Whether you are interested in contemporary stories or in more traditional ones I believe you will be missing out if you ignore this novel. I personally look forward to reading more of Whitehead’s work as well as other works by Indigenous writers in Canadian literature.

 

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