Children of Blood and Bone

Cover image for Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemiby Tomi Adeyemi

ISBN 978-1-250-17097-2

Deep down, I know the truth. I knew it the moment I saw the maji of Ibadan in chains. The gods died with our magic. They are never coming back.”

Once, Orïsha was the land of maji, ten powerful clans, each with their own unique powers to command earth or water, life or death. But eleven years ago, King Saran conducted the Raid, cutting the maji off from their gods, and killing every practitioner old enough to have come into their powers. Only the divîners remain. Children at the time of the Raid, they will live their entire lives under the heel of the Royal Guard, derided as maggots, never coming into their inheritance. It seems that the gods have abandoned Orïsha. But tension is brewing in the royal family. Princess Amari’s best friend is a divîner named Binta, who serves as her chamber maid, and Prince Inan is hiding a dark secret of his own. Having lost her mother in the Raid, a young divîner named Zélie harbours a deep resentment for the royal family, and a longing for the Reaper powers she should have inherited on her thirteenth birthday. Instead, she trains to fight with a staff, and dreams of a day when the divîners will rise up against their oppressors. But the gods have plans to throw some unusual allies in her path.

Children of Blood and Bone is made up of short chapters from several narrative points of view, including Zélie, Amari, and Inan. Zélie is joined in her quest by her brother Tzain, a promising athlete who takes after their kosidán father, rather than their maji mother. Adeyemi employs short chapters that have a slightly choppy pacing. Point of view changes are frequently accompanied by a time jump as well as a change of location. She tends to leap straight into the action after each transition, but I was frequently distracted from settling into whatever was going on by first needing to figure out the relative timing. It sometimes seemed that Adeyemi intended these jumps to add an element of surprise; by disjointing the timing between the chapters, she could cut straight to an encounter that the reader might otherwise have assumed could not take place yet. In general, however, I did not find this technique to be effective.

One of the characters I wanted to know more about was Binta, as I felt that her friendship with Princess Amari was necessarily a complex relationship that deserved more depth. Binta is a divîner, the only such to serve in a prominent place at court as Amari’s handmaid. It is specified that she is a paid servant, not a slave, but she is still a member of an oppressed group, and her relationship to Amari is therefore fraught with certain baggage. However, she is not a character that we get to meet or interact with directly. Instead, her death is a motivating factor for Amari, a moment of awakening to the injustices her father has been responsible for perpetrating against the divîners, who are referred to as maggots by those who do not share their magical heritage. As such, Binta is a character who exists largely in Amari’s memories and regrets.

Although the complexity of Binta’s situation was glossed over, I was able to see Adeyemi’s adeptness at handling such a power imbalance in the relationships that she subsequently builds between Zélie and Amari, and Zélie and Inan. Zélie has difficulty with trust, and does not always give it wisely, especially when her hand is forced by circumstance. Both Amari and Inan are shown grappling in different ways with their family legacy. Inan has to discover if he can maintain his father’s convictions when he is not directly under his eye, and Amari is faced with the realities of the world for the first time after a sheltered life inside the palace walls in Lagos. She has been trained to fight in theory, but she has never had to carry it out in practice until she defies her father and runs away. Adeyemi also did an excellent job with the sibling relationship between Tzain and Zélie, and I look forward to seeing her further develop Amari and Inan’s sibling dynamic as they decide whether they will perpetuate or defy the values their father has taught them.

Adeyemi has laid down the foundations of a rich world and magical system, albeit one that is in abeyance, more memory than practice for much of Children of Blood and Bone. This first volume is about the fight to restore magic, and explores the question of how the absence of power shapes a people. There is much interesting ground to be covered in the question of what happens when an oppressed group gains power and must figure out how to use it responsibly. Despite some choppy parts, I am looking forward to seeing how this series develops.

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You might also like Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

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The Book Thieves

Cover image for The Book Thieves by Anders Rydell translated by Henning Kochby Anders Rydell

Translated by Henning Koch

ISBN 978-0-73522123-9

 “The image of Nazis as anti-intellectual cultural vandals has been persistent, possibly to some degree because it is easy to comprehend, and possibly because we would like to see literature and the written word as fundamentally good. But even the Nazis realized that if there was something that gave more power than merely destroying the word, it was owning and controlling it. There was a power in books.”

The image of Nazis burning books is a striking and pervasive one, because of course it is based in the truth of the pyres that were made in public squares across Germany as the Third Reich rose to power. But in The Book Thieves, Anders Rydell tackles and attempts to recontextualize that image by uncovering the extent to which the Nazis were collectors of stolen literature—not just of valuable manuscripts as you might already be familiar with from Monuments Men—but of books of all types, from all across Europe. Rydell, a Swedish journalist, follows the trail of the pillagers from Berlin to Amsterdam and Paris, and beyond to Vilnius and Thessaloniki, demonstrating the far reach of the Nazi looters. Entire libraries disappeared, sometimes untraceably, into the mists of the war. Rydell chronicles the actors who seized and dispersed the libraries, as well as the modern librarians who now face the unenviable task of uncovering and facing up to the origins of their collections.

For decades, German libraries have tried to ignore or hide the provenance of many of the items in their collections acquired during or as a result of the war. Fly leaves were cut out, and ex libris labels were scraped or torn away. Some libraries went so far as to forge a different provenance for their acquisitions. But a new generation of library professionals have refused to look away any longer, and “they are fighting a retroactive battle against their former colleagues, who for decades have been rubbing out, tearing off, or falsifying the provenance of these books—all to make them blend into the collection.” Without an ex libris, or inscription, most privately owned books are untraceable. But others come from famous libraries, some of which are now lost to history, and others which still operate despite their losses.

While some books were stolen outright from synagogues, libraries, and Freemason’s Lodges, or plundered from abandoned Jewish residences, others were obtained by coercion. Some very rare and valuable items were added to the Goethe Archive by means of an extortionate deal with a Jewish book collector who knew that he would not be able to flee the country with these famous national treasures, and so was forced to sell them for a pittance. Only in 2006 were his descendants compensated for the discrepancy between the value of the collection, and what was paid for it at the time.

The darkest twist in Rydell’s narrative comes in the chapters that address the Jewish scholars and intellectuals whose forced labour made the creation of the Nazi book depositories possible. In Berlin, they were required to translate and explain Hebrew and Yiddish texts for the SS, because there were not enough “Aryan” translators who knew these languages. In Vilnius, Belarus, a group of Jews were put to work sorting the plunder that would be sent back to Germany by the occupiers. This “intellectual slave labor” forced the prisoners into a terrible choice between consigning their books to the invaders and hoping that they would survive the war to perhaps be reclaimed, or keeping them from Nazi hands and seeing them destroyed. They also knew that when the work ran out and there were no more books to sort, they too would be sent to the death camps. A resistance of book smugglers nevertheless emerged in the group.

What is perhaps most interesting about The Book Thieves is trying to understand why the Nazis stole various texts and libraries. The desire for books by national heroes, or to control the image of famous literary Germans shaped some of their work at home. To this end, they also seized control of publishing, literary awards, and even book clubs. In the Jewish libraries, they were seeking an understanding of their “enemy” and searching for evidence of the great Jewish world conspiracy that drove their hatred. The Freemasons were suspect thanks to their international connections, but certain groups within the party were nevertheless desirous of their rumoured occult knowledge, and the libraries that supported it. In the occupied territories, even books that were of no interest for the purposes of Nazi “research” were taken, and often destroyed, in an attempt to crush the unique cultural identities of the people in those countries. In short, it was never as simple as just seizing and burning the work of undesirables, or asking Germans to purge their own collections to this end. Various groups within the party were at work to further the creation of the “Thousand Year Reich,” and books played a part in many of their plans.

The Book Thieves gives greater depth to our understanding of how the Nazis treated books and literature both before and during the war. I also felt it as a sort of professional call to arms, a reminder to librarians everywhere that we can and have been complicit in atrocities for which full restitution can never be made. And the end of the war did not end the thefts; the Red Army stole in kind, not just taking back stolen books, but laying claim to the Russian books that had belonged to an expatriate library in Paris. Individual soldiers also stole books, scattering some of the lost volumes across the world when the armies dispersed. And more than a million books were sent to the Library of Congress by a delegation sent from Washington, D.C. The problem of restitution is not merely a German one, and The Book Thieves is a means to understand both oppression and complicity in an ongoing tragedy.

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You might also like In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

The Poppy War

Cover image for The Poppy War by R. F. Kuangby R. F. Kuang

ISBN 978-0-06-266256-9

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

The Keju is a ruse to keep uneducated peasants right where they’ve always been. You slip past the Keju, they’ll find a way to expel you anyway. The Keju keeps the lower classes sedated. It keeps us dreaming. It’s not a ladder for mobility; it’s a way to keep people like me exactly where they were born. The Keju is a drug.

Rin is a war orphan, being raised by the Fang family only because the government has mandated that families adopt such children, and because they find it convenient to use her to help them in their drug smuggling business. Living in the deep rural south of the Nikara Empire, Rin dreams of passing the Keju exam, and traveling north to study at one of the empire’s elite schools. But when her hard work pays off and she tests into Sinegard, the top military academy in the country, Rin discovers that her trials are only beginning. Sinegard’s military and political elite have little time or sympathy for a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south. Desperate to prove herself, Rin unlocks a supposedly mythical power that enables her to summon the strength of the gods. Even as she is further alienated from her teachers and classmates, she becomes the protégé of an eccentric master who has taken no other apprentices from her class. But Master Jiang wants Rin to learn to control and suppress her abilities, while Rin dreams of wielding them in battle for the glory of the Empire. And with the Empire constantly on the brink of the next war with the Mugen Federation, it becomes increasingly difficult to heed her Master’s advice and resist the call of the Phoenix, god of fire and vengeance.

Rin starts off as a grey protagonist who is driven hard by ambition and misplaced loyalty. I was reminded of the way we watched the development of Adelina Amouterou in Marie Lu’s The Young Elites series. However, I think it is important to note that in spite of the age of the protagonist, in tone, pacing, and subject matter, The Poppy War is a decidedly adult fantasy novel that deals with war, substance abuse, rape, genocide, and intergenerational trauma, to name a few. Although her character develops to an increasingly dark place, early in the book, I found Rin very appealing. She is independent, ambitious, and irreverent, and she doesn’t care about customs or social roles. The Fangs plan to marry her off to a local official several times her age so that he will look the other way when it comes to their opium smuggling business. Her reaction is “fuck the heavenly order of things. If getting married to a gross old man was her preordained role on this earth, then Rin was determined to rewrite it.” However, she quickly developed into a person who worried me. She burns herself to stay awake when studying for the Keju, leaving herself scarred. And when she arrives in Sinegard and finds her studies imperiled by menarche, she decides to have her reproductive organs medically destroyed. In short, she is a terrifying badass. I admired her rejection of social norms, even as I was terrified of what she was going to grow up into. While I described her as a grey protagonist above, I think it is safe to say that the grey will be pretty black by the end of this planned trilogy. In fact, the transformation is arguably in place by the end of the third act, when Rin refuses to apologize or abdicate responsibility for her actions in the war.

The Poppy War’s narrative is divided into three acts. Part I is Rin’s origin story, and covers her studying for the Keju and her time at Sinegard. Although there are parts of this section that are hardcore, as mentioned above, it is the most youthful part of the narrative, and mirrors many of the familiar traditions of the magical boarding school setting, including trials, rivalries, and unexpected friendships. However, Part II sees the arrival of a long-awaited war, and the students of Sinegard, no longer children, are drafted into the war effort. Rin is once again cast adrift, and must find her place in the Empire’s military, a milieu in many ways more daunting than even elitist Sinegard. There are some lengthy descriptions of military sieges and tactics that would generally not be in my wheelhouse, but I liked the way Kuang was using these elements to explore politics, history, and the implications of war, not just wallow in war itself. In fact, one of the most important battles (see Chapter 21) is described only by its aftermath, in a way that is somehow both understated and horrifying. These choices continued to keep me with the book despite the increasing military focus.

Debut author Rebecca Kuang studied Chinese history at Georgetown, and in the same week that she was celebrating her debut novel, she was tweeting about completing her honours thesis on the 1937 Nanjing Massacre. The Poppy War draws deeply on that knowledge, with a fantasy twist that introduces ancient gods, and the remaining few who are able to draw on their power at a terrible price. Kuang cleverly insinuates much of her history and world-building as Rin studies for the Keju, and has to master many of these subjects for herself. To the extent that The Poppy War is a dark fantasy, it is a merely a dark reflection of the history that Kuang is drawing on. And with the fantasy genre awash in European history inspired fantasies, dark and otherwise, I think it is safe to say we could use a few more like Kuang’s that are inspired by and centered on other parts of the world.

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You might also like City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty

Canada Reads Along 2018: Forgiveness

Cover image for Forgiveness by Mark Sakamotoby Mark Sakamoto

ISBN 9781443417990

History has proven all too many times that discrimination in any form is a downward spiral.”

On opposite sides of the Pacific, two Canadians become prisoners of World War II. In December 1941, Hong Kong fell to the Japanese, and more than 1500 Canadian soldiers were captured and rounded up into camps. Among them was Ralph McLean, a young man from Canada’s eastern Magdalen Islands. For the remainder of the war, the prisoners would endure dire, often life threatening conditions. That same month, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor ratcheted up anti-Asian sentiment in Canada, particularly on the West Coast. Mitsue Sakamoto, recently married, found herself and her family forced out of their homes, and given a choice between internment and hard labour on a farm to help supplement war rationing. They would never be able to return home to Vancouver. Decades later, these war survivors would be united by the marriage of their children, and the birth of their shared grandchildren. But tragedy would continue to touch the family down through the years, in the form of divorce and addiction and loss.

Forgiveness is a book with three main acts or movements. We first follow Grandpa Ralph through an abusive childhood with his alcoholic father through to his enlistment in the war in order to escape home. On the opposite coast, Mark’s grandmother, Mitsue, is beginning her career as a seamstress, meeting her husband-to-be, and facing the rising tide of anti-Japanese sentiment fostered by their dominance in the coastal fishing industry. Mark Sakamoto follows his grandparents through the war, recounts the meeting and marriage of his parents, as well as the first dinner between his maternal and paternal grandparents. The third act of the book is concerned with his parents’ divorce, and his mother’s subsequent descent into alcoholism, near-homelessness, and an abusive relationship. Each section carries its own unique and heavy weight of tragedy and loss.

The cover copy for this book describes it as being about “two families on either side of the Second World War.” But what struck me about Forgiveness is that it is actually about two families that were supposed to be on the same side of the war. Mitsue was not even a Japanese citizen; she was born and raised in Canada, and had never set foot in the country of her parents’ birth. Grandpa Ralph was imprisoned by enemy combatants. Mitsue Sakamoto was forced out of her home and given a choice between near-slave labour and imprisonment by her fellow Canadian citizens and her own government. Throughout Canada Reads week, Grandpa Ralph was by far the most frequently spoken about by the panelists, but for me it was Mitsue whose story and character were of greatest interest. And while the theme of the book is forgiveness, it remains largely on a personal level, dealing with Ralph and Mitsue’s ability to put their pasts behind them in order to allow their families to come together, and then with Mark’s need to forgive himself for not being able to save his mother. The book never digs deeper to try to reckon with the much bigger forgiveness and reconciliation that needs to happen on a national level in order for Canada to move on from the wrong that was done to Canadians of Japanese descent during the war, and to ensure that such injustice is not repeated.

After the death of his paternal grandfather, Hideo Sakamoto, Mark helped his grandmother clean out their basement. There they found Ralph McLean’s war medals, and Mitsue asked Mark to return them to his maternal grandfather. In this early scene, Mark describes the profound respect that existed between Mitsue and Ralph, so I was disappointed that the book did not go on to recount many interactions between them. The first dinner between the two families is described, but very few other scenes place them together. Rather, after the war years, Mark’s focus turns to his parents’ marriage and divorce, and his mother’s struggle with addiction, and his own difficulties as a young man trying to find ways to help her, and eventually to free himself from her cycle of destruction. We never do circle back to those war medals, to the friendship that developed between the two sets of grandparents, and how the medals came to be gifted from one side to the other.

Forgiveness was defended in this year’s Canada Reads debates by fashion television host Jeanne Beker. In her opening argument, Beker highlighted the importance of remembering the darker chapters in Canada’s history, while also forgiving them in order for healing to take place. The hopefulness of Mark Sakamoto’s narrative became a key pillar in her defense of the book throughout the week, with Beker arguing that it is necessary to heal our own hurts before we can turn to healing anything outside of ourselves.

Working on this basis, Beker took relentless aim at the darkness and tragedy in other books on the table, particularly The Marrow Thieves, and American War. She described The Marrow Thieves as being too fearful, since much of the book is spent on the run in the woods, and ascribed her aversion as being a product of hearing her parents’ stories about being Holocaust survivors, and fleeing the Nazis. Beker took a similar tactic against American War, describing the book as a “soul destroying” revenge narrative. Despite these arguments, on Day Two, Beker cast the tie breaking vote between American War and Precious Cargo, which eliminated Precious Cargo from the competition, leading some viewers to speculate that she was voting strategically, since it was the only book on the table that was more upbeat and arguably more hopeful than her own. Beker went on to explain her vote by saying she didn’t feel that Precious Cargo had the “gravitas” to compete against the other books.

Going into the final day of debates, not one panelist had cast a vote to eliminate Forgiveness. By contrast, the last opponent standing, American War, had been voted against every day, and narrowly survived the Day Two tie against Precious Cargo. With the only other memoir having been eliminated, Beker dodged many questions by refusing to compare fiction and non-fiction, selecting Ralph McLean as her favourite character in the books because he was real, and describing the question “what does Forgiveness have that American War doesn’t” as “ridiculous,” because the two books were apples and oranges. Beker closed with an appeal to the values of the book, including forgiveness, healing, and remembrance. By contrast, Tahmoh Penikett asked his fellow panelists to be open to hearing and acknowledging the hard truths of American War, and thanking them for their passionate defenses of their own books. Jully Black, who had fiercely challenged Beker’s negative characterization of difficult books throughout the week, voted with Penikett against Forgiveness. However, Beker’s appeals to positivity and true stories over fiction were effective with Greg Johnson and Mozdah Jamalzadah, who voted with Beker to make Forgiveness the winner of Canada Reads 2018.

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That’s it for Canada Reads Along 2018! Catch up on my recaps starting here.

Canada Reads Along 2018: American War

Cover image for American War by Omar Ell Akkadby Omar El Akkad

ISBN 978-0-451-49358-3

If we nod and smile while they parade some fantasy about this being a noble disagreement between equals and not a bloody fight over their stubborn commitment to a ruinous fuel, the war will never really be over…You fight the war with guns, you fight the peace with stories.

Sarat Chestnut is born by the sea, into contested territory between the Reds and Blues that are fighting the Second American Civil War. Her world is wracked by climate change, and by the South’s refusal to give up on fossil fuels. Much of the Southern US coast is now underwater, and out-of-control drones crawl the skies. When her father is killed in a bombing, Sarat’s mother and her three children flee to Camp Patience, a refugee camp on the North/South border. There they scrape together a life always on the edge of dissolution, and the children grow up with the question of what the future can possibly hold for them. It is here that Sarat meets the mentor who will shape her mind, and turn her to his own ends.

In American War, journalist Omar El Akkad paints a dark dystopian future in which the unreconciled shadows of America’s past rise up to tear the country apart once more. His protagonist begins as a child caught in the middle of that fight, and is irrevocably twisted and shaped by the horrors of war. We follow Sarat as she goes from refugee to fighter to war hero to wanted terrorist, perceptions of her swaying and turning depending from which side of the conflict she is being seen. We see her broken and remade, and broken again, and must inevitably follow her to the consequences of that final breaking. She is not a likeable character, and the reader is not necessarily supposed to sympathize with her actions, but it the author’s quest to make us understand her nevertheless.

American War is told with a frame narrative. It is many years after the Second American Civil War, and the Reunification Plague that followed it. In the far north of the Alaska Neutral Territory, someone who remembers Sarat, who knows who she was, and what she did, is dying. For so long the secret has been kept, but now the story will be told. Also interspersed through the book, at the end of each chapter, are documents that assist the massive feat of world-building that El Akkad has undertaken. The story covers a large swath of time, with a lot of alternate history that needs to be explained, and these excerpts help support that, but are inserted at natural breaking points rather than dumped into the main body of the text.

Although American War was extremely well conceived and written, there were three parts that stuck out which were difficult for me to reconcile. I was able to cope with the darkness of the book, but somehow I couldn’t handle the scene where a boy spying on Sarat in the shower was supposed to make her feel powerful. Fortunately this scene did not devolve into a sexual assault, but it was still a moment of exploitation, and unlike other such moments, the author chose to spin this one as empowering. Next, there was Sarat’s distaste for her disabled brother, who sustains a traumatic brain injury in the course of the book. Her love for her family is supposed to be one of Sarat’s only redeeming qualities, so this felt somewhat incongruous. Most of all however, I struggled with El Akkad’s choice to create a queer, black, female terrorist as the protagonist of his book, when so often these are the people we see become the victims of terrorism. The author failed to meaningfully engage with how these aspects of her identity might have interacted with her experiences to shape her trajectory.

American War was defended in this year’s Canada Reads debates by actor Tahmoh Penikett, who is best known for his work in science fiction television. In his opening arguments, Penikett posited American War as a novel that addresses a crisis of empathy in our society. Going into the finale, he asked his fellow panelists to be open to hearing the hard truths of this book, because listening is essential in order to find compassion and make healing possible.

Over the course of the week, the darkness of American War was repeatedly pitted against the themes of hope in Forgiveness and The Marrow Thieves, and the humour and levity of Precious Cargo. Greg Johnson in particular was adamant in his argument that the world is not as dark a place as it is painted in this novel, and Jeanne Beker was right there with him, having effectively used this argument against The Marrow Thieves as well. American War was voted against at least once every day of the debates, survived a tie breaker on Day Two, and received two more strikes on Day Three. By contrast, going into Day Four, not one panelist had cast a ballot against Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto, making it evident that while American War was going to the finale, it would have a tough fight to win Canada Reads 2018.

One thing the panelists did find particularly effective about American War was the role reversal of empires. America has fallen into the civil war-torn state we see on the news of many other countries, while the Bouazizi Empire has risen in North Africa and the Middle East, to fill the role America once held in the world. The Empire and China now send aid ships to America. Mozhdah Jamalzadah spoke eloquently to this on Day Two, pointing out how this was effective against the North American tendency to block out what is going on in the rest of the world. Tahmoh Penikett continued to amplify this line of argument, suggesting that the book is so effective because it is set in our backyard. Occasionally, a panelist would try to raise the American-ness of the book as a strike against it, but this argument never gained much traction or serious debate. Darkness and revenge were the main sticking points.

The final day of debates focused on finding elements of the eliminated books in the remaining contenders, a persuasive line of attack given that the three free agents decide the competition. Tahmoh Penikett appealed to Mozhdah Jamalzadah, arguing that the refugee crisis of The Boat People is also represented in Sarat’s story. Jeanne Beker tried to relate Forgiveness to The Marrow Thieves, arguing that its message of learning from our elders and moving forward with an eye on the past was represented in her book as well. All of the remaining panelists were also asked to say what they liked about the remaining books. Tahmoh Penikett said he personally related to Mark Sakamoto’s description of loving someone who is struggling with alcoholism. Jeanne Beker praised Omar El Akkad’s writing, and his visual, cinematic style.

When it came time to vote, Penikett and Beker of course voted against the opposing book. After voting against American War for much of the week, always citing its American-ness as her reason, Jully Black moved on the final day to vote against Forgiveness. Greg Johnson—though he admitted he had come close to flipping thanks to Penikett’s defense—voted against American War for the third time. Canada Reads once again put Mozhdah Jamalzadah in the position of casting the final ballot, and her strike against American War made Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto the winner of Canada Reads 2018.

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Check back tomorrow for my review of the winner of Canada Reads 2018! Meanwhile, you can catch up on my recaps, or tune into to replays on CBC.

Canada Reads Along 2018: The Marrow Thieves

Cover image for The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimalineby Cherie Dimaline

ISBN 978-1-77086-486-3

Everyone tells their own coming-to story. That’s the rule. Everyone’s creation story is their own.”

Fifteen-year-old Frenchie is a survivor, the last remaining member of his family after seeing his brother snatched by the government. In a near-future where the world is falling apart thanks to the results of global warming, society is also plagued by a new problem. People have forgotten how to dream, and this dreamlessness is slowly driving them mad. Only the Indigenous population retains the ability to dream, and it is their bone marrow that seems to hold the key to why they have not succumbed to this new plague. As the madness spreads, the government takes a page from history, and begins herding the remaining First Nations people into facilities modeled on residential schools, where their marrow is harvested at the cost of their lives. The few who remain free push northward into the wilderness, trying outrun the reach of the government. But a confrontation with the Recruiters is inevitable, and one day there will be nowhere left to run.

The Marrow Thieves opens with Frenchie’s coming-to story, a flashback that recounts how he came to be on the run in the northern bush, and who he was before the plague came. The bulk of the story is set in the bush, but several of the characters in the party share their own coming-to stories over the course of the book. There are also bits of Story mixed in, times when the elders Miig and Minerva pass down their knowledge to the youth that they are taking north. Hearing Story is both a privilege and a responsibility to become the carriers of their heritage going forward into an uncertain future. So much has already been lost, or deliberately stripped away, and the kids cling to the little bits of Story and language that remain to them, that help them understand who they are, and why they are hunted. It is their weakness, but also their truth, and their power.

Using a futuristic echo of the residential school system, The Marrow Thieves examines how Canada might repeat the horrors of the past by failing to acknowledge or reconcile with them. The science fiction element of extracting dreams from bone marrow is not deeply explored in a technical sense. Rather, the bone marrow becomes a powerful metaphor for what has been taken from Indigenous peoples, as well as the appropriation of their culture by those who have already taken their land, their resources, their homes, and their families, and are still not satisfied by the destruction they have wrought. It is a gut-churning portrayal entitlement.

Despite the dark premise, and the threat that Frenchie and his friends are facing, I still found an abundance of hope in The Marrow Thieves. Although they are on the run, the characters still build lives, families, and friendships. They care for Minerva, who has deep roots to the culture, but who would not be strong enough to run on her own. They protect little RiRi, the youngest of their group, slowly helping her to understand what things were like before her birth, and what has been done to their people since then. Miig mourns the husband that he lost, but finds his purpose in protecting and teaching the youth who are left. And Frenchie and Rose are clumsily falling in love, haltingly trying to figure out themselves, and one another, and what it means to love in a world like the one they were born into.

The Marrow Thieves was defended in this year’s Canada Reads competition by R&B singer-songwriter Jully Black. Back on Day One, Black championed The Marrow Thieves as a hopeful book that acknowledges the power of the youth voice, and the importance of hearing Indigenous stories and understanding Canada’s original injustice. During her Day Three opening, she said that she felt the book was more important than ever in light of the breaking news that Pope Francis is refusing to issue an apology for the role of the Catholic Church in the abuses of the residential school system, despite the recommendation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The Marrow Thieves has had a tough row to hoe on Canada Reads 2018 from Day One. As the only Young Adult book in the competition, panelists repeatedly singled it out, recommending it for use in schools, but denying that it could be the “One Book to Open Your Eyes” that adult Canadians need to read. Jully Black argued for the importance of the youth perspective, and further that “the soul has no age.” After the book he was defending, Precious Cargo, was eliminated on Day Two, free agent Greg Johnson went so far as to announce that in addition to donating twenty-five copies of Precious Cargo to schools, he was also purchasing twenty-five copies of The Marrow Thieves. He highlighted the hopefulness of the book, and the fact that it was about the kids’ journey to rediscover their history.

During Day One, Jeanne Beker had derided the despair and fear of The Marrow Thieves, arguing that it might alienate readers. The point was raised again on Day Two, and Jully Black challenged her to think about who might be made uncomfortable by the book and why. Tahmoh Penikett defended the book as having resonated with him on many levels, particularly considering his mother’s experiences in the residential school system. However, both Penikett (a science fiction actor) and Mozhdah Jamalzadah expressed that they were taken out of the story by the lack of explanation about how the bone marrow extraction worked. Jully Black argued that the bone marrow was a metaphor, and that we do not need to understand the process in order to connect with what the bone marrow represents. Drawing a parallel to the residential schools, she argued that we do not need to see behind the drywall to the architecture of the school building to know that the system was harmful.

The Day Three debate focused on the differences between memoir and fiction, reading as an enjoyable experience, and compelling characters. These question led the panelists to mostly discuss American War and Forgiveness, with less specific discussion of The Marrow Thieves compared to previous days. When the ballots were cast, Jully Black and Greg Johnson formed an unsurprising alliance, voting against American War. Tahmoh Penikett and Jeanne Beker voted against The Marrow Thieves. This put the final vote in the hands of free agent Mozhdah Jamalzadah, whose choice made The Marrow Thieves the third book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2018.

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Catch up with the 2018 Canada Reads debates starting with Day One, or tune into the program with CBC 

And if you loved The Marrow Thieves as much as I did, you might also like The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf by Indigenous Australian author Ambelin Kwaymullina

Canada Reads Along 2018: Precious Cargo

Cover image for Precious Cargo by Craig Davidsonby Craig Davidson

ISBN 978-0-345-81051-9

Failure carries weight. Nobody tells you this. Cinderblocks stacked on your chest and piled atop your skull; you develop a persistent slump, your shoulders round in defeat. People can sense it. They avoid you as if you’ve got scabies.”

In the summer of 2008, Craig Davidson was broke and unemployed, a struggling writer who felt he had blown his one chance at success. After being rejected for a lunch monitor position, a flyer landed in his mailbox advertising school bus driver jobs—no experience necessary! By simple chance, the route closest to home was a mini-bus that transported five students with various disabilities to their middle and high schools. Over the course of the school year, the kids on the bus unwound Davidson’s sense of failure, and soon helped him begin writing again. Precious Cargo is his account of that year on the bus, and what he learned along the way.

Precious Cargo is divided into four sections by the seasons of the school year, beginning with Craig’s hiring and training, and progressing through to the following June. Interspersed with these main sections are chapters from an unpublished novel called The Seekers. It wasn’t immediately clear to me what was going on with these excerpts, which are not explained, but I soon realized that Davidson had cast the kids from his bus as heroes in an adventure novel about time travel. Over the course of the book, as we get to know the five kids, it becomes evident that they are largely geeky and creative, enjoying science fiction and fantasy, and making up their own stories as well. I wondered if Davidson had shared his invention with them, or involved them in it, but this is never touched on.

The portrayals of the five kids who rode Davidson’s bus are a bit uneven. Jake, a teenager with Cerebral Palsy who loves science fiction, and wants to be a writer, by far receives the most attention and detail, followed by Oliver, a dramatic character who has Fragile X syndrome. Vincent and Gavin (who is non-verbal) fall in between, and Nadja receives very little attention at all. I had wondered if this is might have been at the request or the kids or their families, but that turned out not to be the case. When this was brought up during the Canada Reads debates, defender Greg Johnson raised it with the author, who admitted that he connected more with some of the kids, and that the book reflects that. I think this was one thing that always felt awkward to me as I was reading the book; Davidson was an adult in a position of responsibility with these kids, but he clearly had favourites.

If some of the kids were barely sketched in, others are very closely described. I was left wondering how Jake and his family felt about the intimate portrayal of their situation. Davidson states that he told the kids and their families that he was a writer, but we never hear from them directly. In Jake’s case in particular, enough identifying details are provided that, although a pseudonym is used in the book, the family is easily identifiable with the most cursory internet search. Davidson very much centered himself and his journey in this account of his year on the bus, and I hope that it has not been at the expense of his subjects. While he seems to have genuine feeling for the kids, he also falls into common tropes, like referring to Jake as being “trapped inside his own diminishing body.”

Precious Cargo was defended in this year’s Canada Reads debates by tornado chaser Greg Johnson. In his opening arguments, Johnson lauded the book for opening his eyes on a personal level—this year’s theme is One Book to Open Your Eyes—and for using humour to tackle difficult issues. Certainly, its tone is different from the other books selected for this year’s competition. In his final rebuttal, he pointed out that this is the first time that a book about disabilities has been selected in the seventeen years of Canada Reads. However, it is a book that is told from an outside perspective.

The discussion of Precious Cargo on Day Two centered on whether or not the characters were fully realized. Although many of the panelists enjoyed the book, they also felt unable to connect with many of the kids other than Jake. Jully Black said that Jake’s father, Calvin, reminded her of her own mother, who cares for Jully’s sister who has a disability. Tahmoh Penikett also argued that while Precious Cargo was humourous and heart-warming, it does not deal with the most pressing issues that are facing humanity today, such as climate change, war, and radicalization. This led into a heated and sometimes chaotic debate about the darkness of American War, and the role of hopefulness and humour in delivering a message.

When it came time to vote, Greg Johnson and Jully Black voted against American War, while Tahmoh Penikett and Mozhdah Jamalzadah cast their ballots against Precious Cargo. Jeanne Beker was the sole vote for The Marrow Thieves, and was called on to cast the tie-breaking vote between American War and Precious Cargo. Surprisingly, given her vehement arguments against the darkness and despair of American War in the course of the Day Two debates, she chose to eliminate Precious Cargo from Canada Reads 2018. Asked to elucidate her decision in the Q&A after the show, Beker explained that as much as she enjoyed Precious Cargo, she didn’t feel that it had the gravitas to compete with the other books, and that it felt more lightweight than the others. She did not feel it was the book that most adult Canadians needed to open their eyes.

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Catch up with yesterday’s recap of the elimination of The Boat People by Sharon Bala. Or tune in to the Canada Reads debates on CBC.

Canada Reads Along 2018: The Boat People

Cover image for The Boat People by Sharon Balaby Sharon Bala

ISBN 978-0-385-54229-6

Certain people felt too rooted, too comfortable. They took it for granted that they deserved to be here more than us. Entitlement closed their hearts.”

Widower Mahindan leaves civil war-torn Sri Lanka dreaming of a new life in Canada for his young son, Sellian, who has already lost his mother and so much else to the conflict between the ruling Sinhalese and the separatist Tamil Tigers. Desperate to escape, Mahindan takes passage for them on an ancient, converted cargo boat, which will smuggle hundreds of refugees across the ocean to the west coast of Canada. But when they land, what awaits them is not a new life, but imprisonment, while Canadian authorities struggle to process the massive influx of refugee claimants, and the public debates whether the boat people should be allowed in at all. His fate, and the fate of his son, will lie in the hands of the Canadian lawyers and adjudicators, each of whom has a story of their own.

I got off to a bit of a rough start with The Boat People, which opens in the midst of an action sequence that lacks any context, and then turns out to be a dream. Fortunately, this passage was relatively short, and the meat of the book proved to be more rewarding than this doubly trite opening. Once I was able to settle into the Sharon Bala’s writing style—which rejects any use of quotation marks or other indications of dialogue, requiring close attention to who is saying what, and whether something is an internal or external monologue—I was drawn into the three main characters, whose personalities and histories ultimately drive the story.

The plot centers on Mahindan, Priya, and Grace, who represent three sides of the immigration question. For his part, Mahindan doesn’t understand the delay in processing his claim. Who would sell everything and spend months in a decrepit boat, leaving behind everything they have ever loved and known, if they didn’t fear for their lives at home? But the government is concerned that terrorists—former Tamil Tigers—may have concealed themselves among the refugees, and the discovery of a cache of unclaimed identity documents aboard the boat only raises further questions. Like everyone, Mahindan has a past in Sri Lanka, a complicated history tied up in civil war, and survival, and through flashbacks, Bala slowly reveals how he finally came to the point of fleeing, and what he had to do to get himself and his son onto that boat. She skillfully builds the character, drawing the reader to empathize with him even as she reveals his complexity.

Disconnected from her heritage, law student Priya Rajasekaran has no interest in immigration law, and resents having to spend her internship defending the refugees just because she is of Tamil descent herself. She barely understands the language, and was discouraged by her parents from getting involved in any cultural group that might mix her up in Tamil politics. But as her internship progresses, she is drawn into the lives of the refugees, and forced to consider anew her own family’s history. Were they really any more deserving of a new life than anyone on the boat, simply because they arrived sooner, while legitimate channels of escape were still open to Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority? And what doesn’t she know about the long, quiet feud between her father and her uncle that was only bridged by her mother’s death? Through Priya, we see the perspective of a second-generation Canadian forced to consider her place in the country she was born into.

Lastly, we have Grace Nakamura, a complex and sometimes infuriating character who has spent her career working for the government in the transportation department. Having recently admitted to her boss that she was bored and burnt out, the Minister of Public Safety granted her a three year appointment as a refugee adjudicator. With no training or background in immigration law, Grace is in over her head, and under intense political pressure from her former boss, but she has to learn to swim quickly when five hundred new cases land on the docket. A third generation Japanese-Canadian, Grace is largely disconnected from her Japanese roots, but as her mother descends into dementia, she lives more and more in the past, becoming obsessed with the Japanese internment, and the loss of their homes and livelihoods in Vancouver. Grace wishes to continue ignoring this past, as her family has always done, but her fourth generation, thoroughly Canadianized teenage twin daughters engage in this journey with their grandmother.

I think the major problem for many readers with The Boat People will be the ending. After spending months in detention, and failing repeatedly to win parole while his case is decided, Mahindan finally goes to the hearing that will decide his fate. He has been separated from his young son for months, as the case drags through the immigration court, and Sellian has been living with white strangers who do not even speak his language. But Sharon Bala makes the choice to leave the ending open, forcing the reader to face the many possibilities. We know how we hope it will go, and we know how we fear it will go, and the open ending forces the reader to confront the idea that Canada can be both the country of refuge we hope for, and the place of rejection and insularity that we fear.

The Boat People was defended in this year’s Canada Reads competition by singer and television host Mozhdah Jamalzadah, herself a refugee who came to Canada at the age of five. The theme for this year’s competition is “One Book to Open Your Eyes,” and in her opening argument, Jamalzadah highlighted the fact that the world is currently in the midst of the worst refugee crisis in history, a line of argument that Clara Hughes successfully used back in 2016 to shepherd The Illegal by Lawrence Hill to victory. Jamalzadah argued that Bala’s novel transforms the refugee crisis into more than numbers on the news, provides a human face, and encourages us to open our doors to fellow human beings who have lost everything.

Host Ali Hassan addressed one question to each book on the opening day of debates, and The Boat People was first up for discussion. He asked the panelists to discuss whether the narrative effectively showed the humanity of refugees and encouraged the reader to see them differently, as Jamalzadah had argued in her opening. Jeanne Beker, defender of Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto, raised the dissatisfying ending. Jully Black, defender of The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline, was put off by the multiple characters and narratives that the story followed. Greg Johnson, defender of Precious Cargo by Craig Davidson, also took issue with the open ended conclusion of the book. Tahmoh Penikett, defender of American War by Omar El Akkad, spoke only positively, citing the multiple relatable perspectives that would help connect the book with many different readers.

When it came time to vote, The Marrow Thieves, Precious Cargo, and American War each received one vote against, from Mozhdah Jamalzadah, Tahmoh Penikett, and Jeanne Beker, respectively. All the panelists cited the decision as being very difficult, and only Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto received no votes against it on the first day. Both Craig Johnson and Jully Black voted against The Boat People, making it the first book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2018.

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You can follow the Canada Reads debates on CBC. Find out how to tune in.