Emancipation Day, by Wayne Grady

by

Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

Jackson “Jack” Lewis may be the central character of Emancipation Day, but author Wayne Grady wants the reader to know from the start that where he came from is every bit as important as wherever he happens to be now. And so the novel opens with a chapter featuring Jack’s father, William Henry Lewis, stopping in for a morning shave at the two-chair downtown Windsor barbershop run by his brother Harlan — something he has been doing virtually every day since their father died 32 years ago.

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.

11shadow logoHarlan 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.

7 Responses to “Emancipation Day, by Wayne Grady”

  1. David Says:

    I only read the backstory to the novel after finishing it so the final chapter came as something of a jaw-dropper for me, and up until that point I’d been thinking the novel, though utterly compelling, was slightly far-fetched, which just goes to show that truth can often be stranger than fiction.
    I still think that if Grady had strung out Vivian’s finding out about Jack any longer it could have become laughable, but the writing was so enjoyable, the examination of race and identity and shame so interesting, and the characters and setting so vivid, that I was prepared to go along with it.
    I agree, not the best of the longlist I’ve read so far, but I wouldn’t have any objections to seeing this on the shortlist (so far I’d place it ahead of Bock and Messud, perhaps on a par with Coady and Davidson, but behind Winter).

    At the moment I’m about 50 pages into the Wayne Johnston and two stories into the de Mariaffi.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Part of me was regretting that I knew the author’s backstory while I was reading it — but I will admit that when the “plot” did start to spin wheels, that did keep me going.

      I agree with your point about the strength of the writing, particularly Grady’s ability to capture voice — I should have noted that in the review itself, although I think the excerpts do illustrate it.

      I have a lot of the list to read yet (and there’s no way I’ll be over the halfway mark by shortlist time) but figure this will end up somewhere midlist for me. I have certainly seen far worse books on previous year’s shortlists.

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  2. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I like the cover.

    It sounds good, but the territory is as you suggest well-mapped. I read a while back a graphic novel, Incognegro, which addresses these themes. It comes up in at least one Walter Mosley novel. Showboat of course.

    Then again, that something has been done before says nothing to whether it’s worth doing again. I liked the quotes and the characters sound interesting. How long is it Kevin? I have the impression it may be rather on the prolonged side…

    Did i ever tell you about my uncle who’s into genealogy, and the reaction of the Canadian family he tracked down to whom we’re distantly related?

    He discovered that a century or so ago there were two brothers, both of Irish Catholic descent. One moved to Canada. He made money in the brewery business, then pretended to be a Protestant and raised his children as Protestants. His brother stayed (if I recall correctly) in Scotland and remained openly a Catholic.

    The Canadian brother prospered. His children went on to become doctors, dentists, that sort of thing. They didn’t know their family money came from a Catholic immigrant brewer. He took care his children didn’t know his background so that they wouldn’t be hampered by it.

    My uncle discovered all this and thought it extraordinary, which it is. A man giving up so much of who he was, living decades as someone that wasn’t really him, in order to give his children a better chance. My uncle couldn’t decide whether it was tragic or heroic or both. He did think though that the modern Canadian family would be glad to know what a remarkable man the founder of their branch of the wider family was.

    They weren’t happy. They were, apparently, horrified since they believed themselves of old and honourable Protestant descent. My uncle’s news was received frostily, and I strongly suspect wasn’t passed on to the next generation.

    Like my uncle I have no idea if the story is tragic or heroic or perhaps both. Unlike that family though, I would have wanted to know because that man made major sacrifices so that his descendants could live as they do today and it’s a shame to view that as a disgrace rather than something to be proud of.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Thanks for that family story — there are some similar elements in the novel in the sense that Jack is trying to create his own version of “family” history. There is no particular reason to do that, beyond some of his own avoidance tendencies. And Grady certainly does explore how his parents and siblings react to his rejection of what he is.

      The novel weighs in at 380 pages (generously laid out, not packed) — I’ve read elsewhere that some of those 22 earlier versions were upwards of 1,500 so Grady has obviously done a fair bit of editing.

      As both my experience and my interpretation of David’s comment indicate, there are some minor problems where the author stalls his plot for a while to explore a side issue that really is quite tangential. That’s where knowing Grady’s back story did help — the issues were important to him (if not necessarily to the story) so I was willing to go along with his explorations.

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      • Max Cairnduff Says:

        I can certainly see why he might need 380 given the breadth of the topic, even if there is an unnecessary tangent. 1,500 or so, well, we should be grateful to him for editing so much since that must have been extremely difficult.

        I’ve taken a note of this one. It sounds quite interesting, even if not perhaps an obvious one for me.

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  3. Buried In Print Says:

    What I most enjoyed about the novel that I can speak of without spoilers, is the way that each character’s voice rang true, so that after each “introduction”, the perspective that I’d just read was the one that I wanted more of and, yet, simultaneously, I was content to move into the next. For me, it wasn’t one of those cases in which I had a “favourite”; I simply inhabited the moment and added that piece to the puzzle. (I hadn’t read about the novel’s genesis in advance, only afterwards, so that was a mystery for me to unravel as I read.)

    A large part of this enjoyment, I think, goes to his use of detail, which you’ve discussed. (Great excerpts you’ve chosen.) For instance, I really like the fact that a detail about a plaster ceiling in a house is so revealing to (and of) one character and completely overlooked by another (and the idea of being a plasterer itself: nice touch).

    The other aspect that I really appreciated but can’t discuss without spoilers was the ending. It must have been tempting to write it another way, to tie up the ends with a shiny satin bow, but the conflict, the tangle, the intensity of those final few lines felt right for the story.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      You make a very good point about the variety and veracity of character voices and that is where I think knowing the genesis of the novel is helpful. Grady is not just trying to tell a character’s story (although Jackson is clearly central), his goal is to tell a “family story” — and that means trying to get inside the heads of all his characters. Your example about the plaster ceiling being noted in detail by one and completely overlooked by another is a good illustration of what the results of that breadth of approach produces.

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