Two Takes on Jonny Appleseed

“But there were tender stories too”: Economies of Care
Reviewed by Dallas Hunt

Towards the end of Joshua Whitehead’s Giller Prize-longlisted debut novel, Jonny Appleseed, the eponymous character’s mother has a dream wherein she and Jonny are fishing, surrounded by slightly sneering, masculinist members of an Indigenous community. In response, Jonny and his kin continue to fish, ignoring these men (and the harmful imaginaries they embody and perpetuate), eventually catching enough fish to feed an entire community. This moment, as well as several others in the novel, are scenes wherein tender economies of care are exhibited by and between different characters, and in this way contest the violent logics of settler colonialism, the gender binary, and heteropatriarchy that structure the lives of Indigenous peoples in the text.

Much of the book centres on Jonny and the women in his life—his kôhkom, his mother, the ever-resourceful Peggy, and his friend Jordan—as well as Tias, Jonny’s primary source of queer longing, love, and desire in the novel. These characters and their interactions with Jonny are governed by everyday economies of being in relation to one another—whether that’s bumming or gifting a cigarette, preparing a home-cooked meal of Mennonite meatballs from an intergenerational recipe, or dining and dashing in joyful glee—and they exhibit the ways Indigenous peoples “get on” in the world, within and against environments that have tried to eliminate Indigenous communities in rural/reserve/urban geographies for centuries. Whitehead’s sketches of these relational obligations stand in contrast to the prohibiting and censoring modes of being embodied by the Indigenous men who fish in Jonny’s mother’s dream. Whitehead thus depicts the ways Indigenous peoples can be in kinship with one another in a good way, in a way that potentially supersedes, troubles, or comes into conflict with the dominant modes of politics and governance that proliferate within (some) Indigenous communities (which is to say, the masculinist acts and mentalities that centre men and their primacy “on the land”).

Ultimately, Whitehead conjures a world, a literary landscape wherein the characters in his text circulate and operate within these everyday economies of care for one another, oftentimes because or in spite of the “home[s] that squeezed the queer right out of [their] languages.” Whitehead generously and generatively furnishes a new home for these characters to thrive in, a home wherein our languages are wonderfully and crucially queer and queered, and a home that can house all of our relations without subjecting them totally to the violent logics of settler-colonial cis-heteropatriarchy. Jonny Appleseed is an indispensable read for not only Indigenous peoples but Indigenous communities as well, one that makes room for the “tender stories” of care and relation between queer, Two-Spirit, and Indigenous women characters. kinanâskomitin to Josh for this gift.


A Decolonial Love Story
Reviewed by Jennifer Hardwick and Amei-lee Laboucan

Joshua Whitehead’s debut novel, Jonny Appleseed, is a story of decolonial love in a colonized world. Jonny is a Two-Spirit Indigiqueer “glitter princess” preparing to travel back home to his mother after her husband dies. In the week leading up to his journey, Jonny alternates between joy, love, grief, and rage as he reflects on family, growing up on the rez, personal and collective trauma, and leaving home to chase dreams and desires in Winnipeg.

Among Jonny Appleseed’s many gifts is the way its characters defy colonial stereotypes and validate the experiences of Indigenous youth. The story will resonate with readers who, like Jonny, grew up eating “beef stock and canned tomato soup and huge chunks of hamburger” and know what it is like to scroll through “a million posts about missing girls” on Facebook.

Whitehead writes with candour and humour about love, lust, sex, and fetishization in a world mediated by smartphones and dating apps. Jonny uses modern technology to facilitate sex work, allowing lonely men to fetishize his culture as a quick cash grab to get back to the woman who needs him most—his mother. Jonny’s work and love life—punctuated by text messages that are “as powerful a slap as slamming down the landline” and apps that make arranging rendezvous easy—emphasize the ways his identity is cultivated through interplays of technology, the colonial gaze, and personal agency.

Kinship is central to Jonny’s life. His love triangle with his best friend and lover, Tias, and Tias’ girlfriend, Jordan, highlights the expansive and complex nature of intimacy. Although Jonny has come out to his family, he feels “a wave of shame” whenever he is associated with being Two-Spirit, and he and Tias keep their relationship a secret. Despite this, they share a deep love built through the unveiling and healing of traumas. This connection is not lost on Jonny, who notes that “an NDN ‘love you’ sounds more like, ‘I’m in pain with you.’” Although he is intensely jealous of her, Jonny also comes to love Jordan for her fierce acceptance and protection of those close to her.

It is not unusual for Jonny to find protection and love from the women in his life. He has unwavering love for the matriarchs in his family, indomitable women who guide their kin “on their way back home” and accept Jonny for who he is. Nearly all of Jonny’s memories contain a lesson from his mom, his Kôkum, or his aunt. These lessons and Jonny’s love for Tias form the heart of the book.

Jonny Appleseed puts a spotlight on trauma, racism, sexism, and the effects of homophobia on Indigenous bodies, minds, and hearts. Jonny and his kin bear the grief of child apprehension, rely on passing skin tones to stay safe, and find everyday tasks such as catching a cab impeded by racism. However, at its core, the novel is about the strength of Indigenous kinship. Wise and funny, relatable and revolutionary, Jonny Appleseed is a much-needed novel that captures the violence of colonization and celebrates the power of decolonial love.

This review “Two Takes on Jonny Appleseed” originally appeared in 60th Anniversary Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 239 (2019): 126-127.

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