Revisiting a One-of-a-Kind Novel During First Nations Public Library Week

Jonny Appleseed, by Joshua Whitehead, is one of my top 10 favourite novels, full stop. You may have heard of it from a few little literary prizes as the winner of Canada Reads 2021, the Lambda Literary Award winner for Gay Fiction in 2019, and when it was longlisted for the 2018 Giller Prize, amongst so many other incredible accolades!

I read it for the first time in 2018, then listened to the audiobook (narrated by the author which I cannot recommend enough), and decided to revisit this one-of-a-kind novel during First Nations Public Library Week.

Jonny Appleseed follows our sweetheart hero, Jonny, a cheeky and charming “glitter princess” Indigiqueer sex worker living in Winnipeg, who must scramble to find a ride back home to the Peguis First Nation to attend his stepfather’s funeral. Whitehead defines indigiqueer as “braiding of two worlds” — his queerness and his culture. The word Indigiqueer is his way of making a space, land and ceremony for that identity.

The central plot revolves around Jonny trying to get back home for his stepfather’s funeral, but the novel is like going down a river of Jonny’s memories and dreams: tender moments of secretly watching queer TV in the middle of the night praying to not get caught; making his kokum (grandmothers)’s meatball recipe as an adult; falling into messy love with his childhood friend Tias (and the complex love triangle that emerges later on); his beloved late kokum; being mercilessly harassed as a queer, nerdy Indigenous kid; and his current roster of clients that fetishize his identities but are his livelihood.

Jonny is such a wonderful character! He is funny, flirty, smooth-talking, but he also suffers so much. We see his loneliness, grief, and trauma and you can feel the reverence and love he has for the women in his life, particularly his mother and kokum. The impacts of intergenerational and present-day trauma resulting from colonialism affect so much of this novel: the racism, homophobia, transphobia, and fetishization Jonny faces is a direct result of colonialism, and what does he do? He feels and lives so deeply, creating his own way to be, which is revolutionary.

Whitehead writes like no one else I’ve ever read. Each word feels intentional and musical. He captures the frenetic pace of coming of age in digital times authentically.

I think the greatest feat of this book is that Whitehead can express so many of those universally human experiences like grief and being in love with a skilled and casual tone while still focusing on a character that has a deeply specific set of experiences. Specific experiences and identities that up until extremely recently, have been completely missing from or misrepresented in mainstream literature and I can’t wait to read more of.

First Nations Public Library Week encourages us all “learn new things together” – books like Jonny Appleseed give us so much to learn and relearn, and I can’t recommend it enough. So, buckle up for a worthwhile rollercoaster of a book that will absolutely make you laugh and probably cry, which is standard for most books I like to recommend here!