2023’s Moon of the Turning Leaves is the second volume in Waubgeshig Rice’s post-apocalyptic Moon of the Crusted Snow series.
Twelve years after the power failed, a new crisis confronts the Anishinaabe of Shki-dnakiiwin. A dozen years of hunting and fishing in a fixed location is depleting local resources. The logical response would to reprise the events following the total collapse of electrified civilization and move the community.
There is a logical destination: the community’s old homelands near the Great Lakes. Whether the migration would be safe is unclear.
Shki-dnakiiwin is isolated and no word has made its way north concerning the state of affairs in Zhaawnong, the lands of the south. Those few scouts who forayed south never returned. The silence is ominous.
The need for concrete information outweighs the manifest risks. Volunteers are selected to walk south, chart Zhaawnong, and return with what they’ve learned. The explorers consist of Evan and J.C., both old enough to have grown up in the lost world of electrification, and also youths Nangohns, Amber, Tyler, and Cal, for whom the new world is more familiar.
The first stop is Gibson, once a populous, thriving city. Now Gibson is a wilderness of looted stores and ruins. Relics and messages for missing loved ones remain, but of the former inhabitants there is no sign save for fragmentary bones. Among the relics, a map of the southern lands, with large swaths ominously labeled DEAD LAND. DO NOT ENTER.
Luckily for the scouts, the first surviving community they encounter is also Anishinaabe. Saswin was founded by traditionalists before the blackout. Their skills allowed them to survive. The inhabitants of Saswin provide useful information about the collapse and the events that followed. The apocalypse was much worse in the south than in the north: not only did every electrical device fail, but pandemics culled millions. Those who survived then faced fallout as untended reactors melted down.
Worse waits south. Down in the former United States, the handful of survivors have fallen under the sway of heavily armed militias. The militias gleefully enforce a violent, exploitive hierarchy. Having squandered their resources, the militia regime is on the verge of collapse. They are preparing a campaign of conquest of the kinder north; perhaps this will delay collapse.
It’s inevitable that the Shki-dnakiiwin scouts should encounter the militia’s scouts. So is violence.
As far as Saswin knows, the catastrophe was an exceptionally powerful Carrington event, followed by plague and meltdowns. However, a lot of what they know was learned secondhand. The consequences following the blackout seem out of scale with the event and I wonder if perhaps collapsing governments didn’t enhance the calamity with an undocumented exchange of WMDs.
I believe that the novel was inspired by the 2003 Blackout, in which shoddy American practices caused a blackout affecting 55 million people. The blackout caused close to a hundred fatalities, but nothing like the widespread carnage featured in the author’s first novel. The contrast between what actually happened during the 2003 blackout and the elevator ride to hell featured in the first novel is striking. Perhaps Rice may have imagined a comprehensive catastrophe in order to create the setting his story needed. Or perhaps he just believed, as do many others, that modern civilization is only one setback from civil disorder and total collapse. Let’s hope he’s wrong.
Both Shki-dnakiiwin and the militias are still relying on pre-collapse artifacts. The difference is that the Anishinaabe are supplementing their declining stores with goods they can make themselves with the tools at hand. The militias settled for stealing other people’s stuff. They don’t seem adept at either maintaining their equipment or making new items1. The militias are therefore in a race to see if they can find new stuff to steal faster than they use it up.
While the most successful cultures in this novel are the ones who revived preindustrial methods, the novel isn’t one of those works with a sunnily nostalgic view of life without mod-cons. A misstep in the wilderness can kill. Traditional hunting methods can still deplete local ecosystems. Life without modern medicine means injuries once treatable are now fatal. While it is true the Anishinaabe community has enjoyed a dozen years free from white interference, there has been a cost.
The novel works as a continuation of the first novel, but it also stands very effectively on its own. Readers not as prone as I am to querying the plausibility of setting will be invested in the fates of the characters, caught as they are between resource depletion and conquistador militias.
1: Were there no gunsmiths or blacksmiths left alive?