As usual, the two engage in a wandering conversation on current affairs: William’s plastering business, the state of the war, coloureds moving to Detroit across the river, whites already moving out of the city, William’s family. That last topic sends William into memory, bringing back a scene that will prove essential background as the novel progresses. He and his fiancé, Josie, are in the registry office where a clerk is filling out the form for their marriage licence. Josie is an orphanage girl who doesn’t know much about her past (her place of birth, for example) and the clerk has already humiliated her by leaving out a couple of her middle names.
…And in the box marked Spinster or Widow, he put “Coloured”.
“Coloured a state of marriage now, is it?” Josie said, she always did have a tongue on her, but the clerk didn’t even look up. And on William Henry’s form, under Nationality, the clerk again wrote “Coloured”. It was like he was registering mongrel pups at the city pound. Josie glared at the man and held her peace, but [William] had to practically drag her out of there.
Harlan interrupts that memory with the offer of some bay rum (“Nothing ever tasted so good as the first drink of the day”) and the chapter comes to a close. The story moves to St. John’s, Newfoundland. Jack Lewis is stationed there as a member of the Navy Band — he’d joined the band back in Windsor, figuring it was the likeliest way of avoiding actual battle. The Band’s role is to supply the send-off to the thousands of troops boarding ships headed to the front; the best part of the posting is that it leaves plenty of free evenings for Jack to front a pick-up jazz group at the Knights of Columbus Hall.
He’d always been quick with the jokes. He fronted the King’s Men because he could tell a joke and knew the lyrics to all the songs. Got people on their feet. Give him the first bar and he’d sing the whole song, he loved it, the looks on the faces of the dancers when the music got to them. When a person is singing he looks you straight in the eye, ever notice that? He wasn’t himself anymore when he was a frontman, he was someone else, like an actor, someone with no past outside the song. He sang with his heart, like he was proposing to his best girl, like he was talking his way into barracks after lights-out.
It was at the K of C Hall a few weeks back where Jack met Vivian, who’d brought him sandwiches during a break. He walked her home and has taken her out a few times: “…but she was a real tease. Her eyes tell me yes, yes, yes, but her knees tell me no, no, no. Still, she might get him places he couldn’t go by himself. He’d call her when he got back to barracks.”
Jack’s in for a surprise as he thinks about making that call. Instead of lining up on the pier to play the troops aboard, the band is ordered on board itself — they are headed off overseas on a destroyer escorting a convoy of more than 50 merchant ships. It will be several weeks, and a number of disasters, before he gets around to making the call.
The time at sea brings a number of things into focus for Jack, which I’ll leave you to discover for yourself. Things do go well with Vivian (she’s the child of what stands for a prominent family in Newfoundland) on his return and the two get married.
All of that takes less than a third of the book — Grady is a patient writer with an attention to detail, both past and present, which I’ve tried to illustrate with my choice of excerpts. As a reader, you know simply from the heft of the book that something else must be coming and it is.
Jack is a light-skinned “coloured” (it grates to type that word, but it is Grady’s choice and was the word of the time) and has chosen to live as much of his life as he could as a white person. Since arriving in Newfoundland, “as much as he could” is conveniently “all the time”. He hasn’t shared this with Vivian and has no intention of doing so. When the war ends and Vivian wants to go to Windsor to meet his family, Jack faces a problem.
As I said, “patience” is one of Grady’s traits and I will respect that. Suffice to say that Jack’s efforts to maintain his “status” provide the opportunity for the author not just to develop that individual aspect of his plot, but also to explore the tangled state of race relations in both post-war Detroit and its Canadian twin, Windsor.
Emancipation Day is Wayne Grady’s first novel, but it is hardly his first book. He has published fourteen non-fiction books and translated fifteen novels — nominated for three Governor-General’s awards in that category, winning once. He also has a “double” on this year’s Giller longlist — as the author of this book and as the translator of Louis Hamelin’s October 1970.
(UNUSUAL SPOILERS AHEAD)
As he states in an afterword and has said often in promotional interviews, Grady started writing this novel more than 20 years ago when he discovered his own mixed-blood background. The project proved to be a challenge: “If anyone tries to tell you that writing a novel is easy, send them to Queen’s University Archives and let them read the twenty-two drafts that trace Emancipation Day’s metamorphoses.”
I knew that back story before I began reading the book and I’ll admit that it became more and more important to my impressions as I continued reading (which is why I am indulging in the spoiler here — although Grady certainly has not tried to hide it in his promotional appearances). The story of an Afro-American living as a white person has been told a number of times before; on that basis, this version simply does not hold up to the one I remember best, Philip Roth’s portrayal of Coleman Silk in The Human Stain.
On the other hand, when viewed as an author’s attempt to capture more than 200 years and five generations of his own history, Emancipation Day has much to recommend it. Normally, I am inclined to say that novelists have to produce a work that stands by itself, that a knowledge of the author’s background and intent should not be required to appreciate the work. Fiction purists may object, but I broke that rule when I came to this book — and I am glad that I did. As a novel, I don’t think it is the best I have read on the Giller list. As an example of an author who has chosen to undertake a daunting task, it was well worth the read and deserves its inclusion on the longlist.