The debut novel from Toronto writer and graphic designer Regan McDonell begins in the aftermath of tragedy. The savage death of teenager Shaun Henry-Deacon – “the bloody grass, Shaun’s belly torn open, the police dog” – shatters a small northern community and devastates the victim’s close circle of friends. “Goth Korean” Sunny and “skinny-legged stoner” Alex have each other and their relationship to support them, but Shaun’s 16-year-old girlfriend Evie and hot-headed Réal – his best friend – find themselves suddenly alone. Each is also carrying a secret: Evie is pregnant, and Réal, a descendent of the titular Black Chuck, a 19th-century trapper who is said to have killed and eaten his young daughter while possessed by a windigo, is pretty sure that he killed Shaun. (He remembers beating Shaun up the night of his death but nothing after that.)
McDonell deftly handles a surprisingly complex narrative, shifting between Réal and Evie as focal characters, exploring the mystery of Shaun’s death while holding back the truth (without ever seeming to deliberately conceal it) and teasing supernatural possibilities.
McDonell, who studied with Patrick Lane and Lorna Crozier at the University of Victoria, presents her multi-racial cast of characters with sensitivity and respect. (She admits in her author’s note she’s conflicted about writing outside her culture and says she reached out “to many Indigenous people for their help” in this regard). Her characters are well developed and well deserving of empathy while not always likeable. In fact, they’re cringingly off-putting at times, a side effect of their complex, realistic reactions and interactions – and the fact that they’re teenagers. The relationship Réal and Evie fall into, for example, feels natural and has consequences that strip back layers of artifice and reveal the true nature of friendship, infatuation, desire, and regret.
Black Chuck surprises at nearly every turn; it’s a powerful debut.