“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 Interspersed with these main sections are chapters from an unpublished novel called The Seekers.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.