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Back Roads Bill: At the campfire with Waubgeshig Rice

This week Bill tells us about a COVID campfire chat with Waub Rice leading to his novel release this week.

Beyond the heat, light and a cooking source, campfires provide entertainment - stories, songs, and community. There are also mindful effects, the origin of comfort and resolve.

On the back roads and in the backyards good things happen around a campfire. Way different than the wood stove or fireplace. It is true and one author knows this well.

Waubgeshig Rice’s new book, Moon of the Turning Leaves, was officially released earlier this week.

It was just about this time in the fall of 2020 at the height of COVID I had the good fortune to hear what was to come within this week’s new novel at a campfire with Waub as he just started his writing journey. “I was sketching out the storyline.” It was at the Canadian Ecology Centre (CEC) within Samuel de Champlain Provincial Park. The fulsome conversation around the fire was prophetic enough and a pseudo-dystopian reminder of what our society would go through. Akin to his novel’s storyline.

This week’s novel release was solidified in a March 2020 contract with Random House Canada. The real challenges of writing soon began including his writing retreat at the CEC and the fortuitous campfire chat.

He is an Anishinaabe author and journalist originally from Wasauksing First Nation near Parry Sound. He is also the author of the short story collection Midnight Sweatlodge. He was the afternoon host of CBC Radio's Up North for the northern Ontario region.

Campfire reflections

Also, at the fire pit that day was Stephen Scharper, professor and director of the Trinity Sustainability Initiative, Department of Anthropology, School of the Environment, University of Toronto.

During COVID his updated second edition of the Green Bible was released through a virtual launch at another fireside event at the CEC.

He recalls, “Waub Rice Is a humane, gifted, and courageous storyteller. His 2018 Moon of the Crusted Snow is a gripping, penetrating, but ultimately hopeful story of graced perseverance. Waub shared part of his creative journey by Brother Fire with me and my University of Toronto students at the CEC during the darkened days of the pandemic lockdown. His lucid, candid reflections were an inspiration to us all, and his weavings of imagination, family, and Anishinaabe-infused wisdom are engagingly epiphanic.”

The fire was a warming one.

His journey

Moon of the Turning Leaves is a continuation of the new release.

In Moon of the Crusted Snow, a remote indigenous community comes to terms with an unexplained catastrophe. As winter sets in the community’s communications and power sources fail. Two community members return from the city fleeing a chaotic society.

The new novel is set about a dozen years later, in a new community founded by Evan Whitesky and the other surviving community members, who left their community at the end of the first novel. Their Anishinaabe cultural practices have grown stronger, but survival is becoming a challenge, as food sources disappear. Evan and his teenage daughter Nangohns join a scouting party and set out in search of their ancestral roots.

"The second novel is meant to stand alone I feel I owe the readers of the original story a good sequel that they deserve.”

I asked him about the significance of campfires.

“Scenes in the new book occur near the end of the day characters are taking the time to reflect upon the moments of their survival lives." He said that it was pretty integral to how he grew up within his family roots. “Around a fire was a time to reconnect with family, to be together. The best times do occur around a campfire.”

Family is important to Waub and within the novel. At the core of the storyline is the father/daughter relationship, tasked with the quest of finding their traditional homeland and within the remnants of the world.

“This is what I saw growing up, the strong family connections empowered me making me proud of who I was and am.”

Waub does not purposely educate the reader about his indigenous values and culture. “I will leave that to the teachers. It comes about somewhere between being purposeful, and naturally informative, it just emerges.”


At night the flames of fire create reflective silhouettes of one’s face and what’s within. Waub’s was intense enough as he was about to write a novel, he had much on his mind.

Here is an example of the prose from Moon of the Turning Leaves by Waubgeshig Rice. Copyright © 2023 Waubgeshig Rice. Published by Random House Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

The summer humidity and afternoon heat fell upon them, and beads of sweat formed on their brows and shoulders. Shoots of grass burst up through the road, some up to their waist. The overgrown ditches seemed to close in on the former roadway.

Evan's nose picked up a hint of sweetgrass as they approached the former centre of town, where major buildings like the outdoor hockey rink, band office, school, and gymnasium still stood. The grey metal roof of the rink to their right was intact, but the thick white plastic boards that enclosed the ice surface had mostly collapsed. Ahead, the brown outer walls of the band office were faded and scorched in some places. Trees and bushes grew high around the school and gym, and most of the windows of all the buildings were broken.

Evan had not planned to stop anywhere else here; anything useful had been picked clean long ago. The crunch of gravel below the soles of his boots evoked a haunted memory of the place as he led them eastward, past the familiar sites—the baseball field and jumping rocks on the shore of the big lake. The grey gravel infield of the ball diamond had become green with weeds, and the outfield grass was as high as the chain-link fencing that enclosed the play area. The wooden bleachers were long gone.

They approached the community store on their left.

"Remember this freakin' place," grumbled J.C. Nangohns did, vaguely. It had been part of a chain of grocers servicing First Nations in the north that sold food at inflated prices to the people who lived there. Nangohns remembered pleading with her mother to buy her something from the colourful candy display at the checkout counter but being told it cost too much money—a common refrain from the other grown-ups about that store. Now, the front door stood open, but it was too dark inside to see if the shelves were still there. In the first days of the blackout, panicked shoppers had ransacked the place. Evan thought back to scanning the near-empty shelves that day in astonishment. He realized now, that had been just the beginning.

Down the road beyond the store, there was a long slope, heavily overgrown. This was where the ploughs had dumped what they cleared from the roads every winter, creating an enormous snowbank—yet another grim landmark from that first winter. According to the scattered stories Nangohns had picked up over the years, this was where Tyler and Isaiah had dumped the body of the man called Justin Scott, whose handguns they had come for and now carried. They had dragged his corpse there on a sled, his body drained of blood from the bullet hole in his head. They rolled the intruder's nearly three-hundred-pound frame down the bank and left it there to freeze: a warning to any other potential trespassers. By spring, his remains were gone, eaten up and carried away by the birds and animals.

If the tangled slope had stirred these memories in Evan and Tyler, they did not let on. They fixed their eyes on the bush ahead, steering them east, with hopes of reaching the river by the late afternoon, where they'd set up camp for the night. As expected, the service road along the hydro lines that led south was completely overgrown and unreliable for passage or guidance. They knew the river would lead them south and eventually to the city of Gibson—the next major stop on their trek. It was a route their ancestors had followed since long before wires cut through the land.

Evan led them into the thick brush, and they swatted at flies for hours until it was time to settle by the river and rest for the night.


What’s next? “Writing is now my life. I left the CBC with enough writing to survive. I don’t take that for granted and I am grateful.”

The sequel to the Moon of the Crusted Snow was easy enough to continue. But now I am sharpening a completely different storyline idea, an entirely different storyline idea and will start writing in the New Year.

It is true I always look forward to any back roads campfire and another with Waub. The Covid campfire chat above leads me to believe his beginning embers will be fanned to become a bonfire – the Giller Prize in the fall of 2024.

(Waub will present at the Canadian Ecology Centre’s annual Earth Day book talk on Saturday, April 20 ,2024. There will be a campfire.)

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Bill Steer

About the Author: Bill Steer

Back Roads Bill Steer is an avid outdoorsman and is founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre
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