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Monday, February 17, 2014

Black History Month: Book Review of Emancipation Day

February is Black History Month in Canada!

Two books I have read recently come to mind, each based on the author's previously “unknown-to-them” family history. One is Linda Spalding's The Purchase (2012) which I may review another time. The other is Emancipation Day (2013) by Wayne Grady.

This novel features a main character, Jack, who lives his life passing as white, rejecting his own race. The author was in a library 20 years earlier researching his ancestral roots, curious about which Irish county his great-grandfather immigrated from before settling in Windsor, Ont. There he discovered in an 1890 Census that this man was not Irish at all, not even white, but instead a black African-American. His father, who had always claimed to be of Irish descent, was in fact black, but with a complexion light enough that he could “pass” for white. Grady had never been told.

Previously a prolific author of non-fiction, Grady has written his first novel based on this discovery. The novel starts during WWII when a young white girl from Newfoundland, Vivian, falls in love with a young sailor, Jack, from Windsor. The story is told in alternating chapters from Jack's & Vivian's points of view.

I will not divulge the plot, but suffice it to say that Jack keeps his racial heritage a secret from Vivian for quite some time. This may seem far-fetched, except that it really happened in Grady's family, in Canada. Set in the big-band era, this novel explores many themes: race, racial politics, shame, denial, self-discovery, love & family dynamics. Long-listed for the 2013 Giller Prize, this novel is “A haunting, memorable, believable portrait of a man so desperate to deny his heritage that he imperils his very soul.” (Lawrence Hill, author of The Book of Negroes).

Diana Inselberg is a retired librarian and resident of Enderby.

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