Category: Biography

Tell Me How It Ends

Cover image for Tell Me How It Endsby Valeria Luiselli

ISBN 978-1-56689-495-1

“The causes are deeply embedded in our shared hemispheric history and are therefore not some distant problem in a foreign country that no one can locate on a map, but in fact a transnational problem that includes the United States.”

Valeria Luiselli came to the work of interpretation by chance. Her family had applied for green cards, or permanent resident status in the United States, but while everyone else’s cards arrived, hers had been lost somewhere along the way. She hired a lawyer to help with her case, but soon after the lawyer quit to take a new job at a non-profit representing unaccompanied minors who arrived at the southern border of the United States to claim asylum. She had been recruited because the organization desperately needed Spanish-speaking lawyers. Almost as an afterthought, Luiselli asked her departing attorney if the organization also needed interpreters. And so, Luiselli found herself interviewing child migrants from South and Central America, following forty carefully scripted questions that would determine their fate.

Luiselli uses the structure of the immigration interview to scaffold her book, but it is as much about what the children do not say, as what they do. For example, many are young enough that they struggle to answer basic questions like where they are from, and why they came to the United States. Some of them speak Spanish as a second language. There is also the context that the children cannot know but which Luiselli becomes terribly familiar with; the lawyers are scanning each transcript for key information that may help them build a case to keep the child in the country. There are too many children, and not enough lawyers—they must pick and choose. A special, expedited juvenile docket was created under the Obama administration, giving the non-profits only twenty-one days to find a lawyer and make a case. Children are entitled to a representative if they can find one, but the state is not obliged to provide. Those who do not find representation are almost always removed. Luiselli catches glimpses of many stories, but rarely knows the final fate of those she tries to help.

Nothing highlights the transnational nature of this problem quite like Luiselli’s discussion of the gangs. Gang violence and recruitment is one of the major factors driving young people to flee their homes, and it can help cement an asylum application. For its part, the US traffics guns south, into the hands of gang members, and feeds the demand for drugs flowing north. Luiselli highlights MS-13’s origins in Los Angeles, and how deportations helped transnationalize the gang, as members were sent back to the Central American states they tried to escape. Children arriving in the United States may well be faced with international members of the very same gangs they fled. As one child Luiselli interviewed put it, “Hempstead [New York] is a shithole full of pandilleros just like Tegucigalpa.” Although he was required to attend school per the terms of his asylum application, the boy wanted to drop out as soon as possible to get away from them. He had run two thousand miles, but it was not far enough.

As a Mexican herself, Luiselli also grapples with Mexico’s role in the migration process. Riding La Bestia—the big freight trains on which migrants hitch a ride—Central American asylum seekers must cross Mexico to reach the United States. Most of the migrants Luiselli interviews are from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. There are mass graves of migrants who die in transit scattered across the country of her birth. Rape is so common enroute that young women “take contraceptive precautions before they begin the trip.” There are also various programs and agreement with the Mexican government to try to prevent migrants from reaching the US border in the first place. The Mexican government “is getting paid to do the dirty work” before an application for asylum can even be made. Yet between April 2014 and August 2015, Luiselli recounts that more than 100, 000 unaccompanied children reached the border.

Tell Me How it Ends is brief, but illuminating, highlighting a problem that long predates the current US administration, and which swiftly exposes the interconnected nature of the refugee crisis which America persists in viewing as an external problem.

No Ashes in the Fire

Cover image for No Ashes in the Fire by Darnell L. Moore

ISBN 978-1-56858-940-4

“Like so many other black boys who would grow up to love and lust after other boys, I would have died if I had not found safety in my imagination. I maneuvered through my days smiling, even as I suffocated in a world that refused to let me breathe.”

Darnell L. Moore was raised in Camden, New Jersey, a predominantly Black and Hispanic city across the river from Philadelphia. When Moore was born in 1976, Camden was a formerly prosperous industrial city that had developed a reputation for violence after a civil uprising against the murder of Horacio Jiminez by two police officers in 1971. But as Moore grew up, facing a fraught relationship with his father, a difficult relationship with the church, and deep denial about his own sexuality, he was largely unaware of that cultural history. Camden was merely home, a place full of his family, but also full of dangers for a boy who didn’t quite fit in. No Ashes in the Fire is an intersectional memoir at the confluence of being a gay Black man in the United States that recounts Moore’s long journey to self-acceptance.

In his portrait of his youth, Moore characterizes himself as a smart but not exceptional child, albeit one who drew the attention of his peers for his subtle failures to fit in. Moore points to the value of his education even as he critiques the system in which it took place. As a boy, he took his report cards to the guidance counsellor, and demanded to know why he wasn’t in the school’s gifted and talented program. He was admitted, but “unfortunately my individual ascension would be of no consequence for all of my peers who still had to return to the overcrowded classes I left.” Rather than casting himself as exceptional, he critiques the inevitable inequality of per pupil funding that relies heavily on local property taxes. Moore admits that “the better story would be one where I am portrayed as an exception, a student more worthy of better schooling than others,” but rather than giving into this narrative impulse, he firmly states, “I was no more gifted than they were.”

Moore is the son of young parents, who welcomed him into the world when they were still teenagers themselves. But his father, who had once defended his mother from beatings at the hands of her own father, eventually became her abuser. The violence in their home drove Moore deeper into himself, and into denial, and he notes that “the real tragedy of living with routine acts of violence is the way each act deadens emotions.” When his mother finally left his father for good, their relationship was essentially severed, even as his ghost haunted Moore’s choices. Yet “the selfish ambition to outshine my dad was not enough to spark self-transformation.” One of the most aching bits of prose in the entire book describes a chance encounter Moore had with his father as an adult: “To say I hated him would only reveal a surface truth. I hated my need to be loved by him. And I hated the way my heart opened in his presence because I knew he wouldn’t enter even if invited.” His absent father is a constant presence as he struggles to define and differentiate his own manhood.

Church had always been a feature of Moore’s life. He was attending a Catholic university when he suffered a heart attack in his first year, after which he “leapt into the depths of a shallow faith,” becoming deeply involved with youth ministry at the expense of his schoolwork. But while he “poured my love into a god I worshipped while slowly denying love to myself,” he secretly hoped to be cured of his desire for men. Eventually, he found that what the church was really instilling in him was self-hatred of the gay part of himself, even as it bolstered his “attraction to patriarchal rule” through its emphasis on masculinity and authority. For Moore, the church proved to be a false respite, and he eventually came to the realization that “the first, and most important revolution I needed to push was an upheaval of the systems within myself.”

No Ashes in the Fire is a story of the complex collision of multiple identities in a world that defaults to straightness and whiteness, and chooses to see some identities as inherently better or more worthy than others. Too many people are consumed by the twin fires of self-loathing and persecution. The fight for justice and equality continues.

You might also like Fire Shut Up In My Bones by Charles Blow 

Unfollow

Cover image for Unfollow by Megan Phelps-Roperby Megan Phelps-Roper

ISBN 978-0-374-71581-6

“Doubt was nothing more than epistemological humility: a deep and practical awareness that outside our sphere of knowledge there existed information and experiences that might show our position to be in error. Doubt causes us to hold a strong position a bit more loosely, such that an acknowledgement of ignorance or error doesn’t crush our sense of self or leave us totally unmoored if our position proves untenable. Certainty is the opposite: it hampers inquiry and hinders growth.”

Megan Phelps-Roper grew up in Kansas, a member of an extremist Christian church composed largely of her family members that would become infamous for their deliberately provocative public protests. Her grandfather was the fire and brimstone pastor, a man who underwent a shocking transition from civil rights advocate to publicly raging bigot after losing his bar license. Her mother, also an attorney, was the church’s chief organizer and spokesperson. As part of the family’s third generation, Phelps-Roper helped lead the church’s charge into the social media space, becoming a regular and outspoken presence on Twitter. But ultimately it was her online proselytizing that led her to ask questions about her faith that she had never allowed herself to consider before. Unfollow tracks the unexpected twists that would lead her to leaving the church in her late twenties, along with her younger sister Grace, and build a new life out in the secular world she had been taught to abhor.

Phelps-Roper was born and raised in the family church, and was only five years old when their “picketing ministry” began. As a result, she was expected to publicly represent the church’s doctrine from an extremely early age. In Unfollow, she has explained the church’s positions and ideas with such articulacy and immediacy that it was hard at times to believe that she didn’t actually hold to them anymore. The Bible verses from the King James Version still roll out effortlessly to underpin and elucidate each position. For most of the book, she uses the pronouns “we” and “our” to narrate events. It was only towards the end of the book that I began to feel her narrative identity separating from that of the church, but it still felt immediate and raw. I have to admit I would be curious to read another book ten years from now, and see what additional insights and perspectives more distance brings.

Unfollow also describes an internal power struggle within the church not unlike what has happened in other new churches when the founder transitions away from leadership. Phelps-Roper was her mother’s right hand, and her mother was the right hand of her own father, the head of the church. Her mother and grandfather are forceful personalities in the narrative; her own father is largely a narrative afterthought until the power shift begins, and as a male head of household he is made part of the new council of elders, albeit the least powerful one. The internal coup aimed at consolidating power to the older, married men, removing women from positions of authority, and increasing the subjection of wives and daughters within the church. To some extent, I think this gave Phelps-Roper a taste of what it was like not to be in a position of privilege within the highly controlling structure of the church, and opened the door to further doubts and questions about hypocrisy, theology, and finally the very divinity of the Bible itself.

Ultimately, the church’s media savvy and penchant for garnering public attention proved to be a double-edged sword. It exposed one of its spokespeople to the very sinners she was supposed to be repudiating. Instead of finding monsters, she found beautiful, messy, wonderful, empathetic people with a tremendous capacity for forgiveness and understanding. She met Jews whose familiarity with havruta made them uniquely suited to debating her, and gay people who knew what it meant to make a choice that would result in losing one’s family. Surprisingly, the tactics the church had traditionally used to garner attention proved counterproductive, “I could watch a Twitter conversation derail in real time whenever I included personally disparaging language,” Phelps-Roper admits, “The exchange would swiftly devolve from theological debate to a playground quarrel.” Slowly but surely, she began moving away from the church’s more radical positions and tactics.

I have some mixed feelings about reviewing this book, despite the fact that it was an emotionally raw and well-written account of Phelps-Roper’s exit from the church and her extended family. If this book made one thing clear to me, it is that the church she left behind thrives on our attention. Counter-protesters just make things exciting; opposition makes them feel validated; retaliation makes them feel righteous and oppressed. The church is engaged in a relationship of exchange with the media, which loves them for their shock value; they are screaming, singing, sign-waving click-bait, and as a result they are regularly able to make world-wide news despite consisting of only about eighty members. Ultimately I recommend this book on the grounds that it is truly insightful about the experience of being raised in such an environment, and the factors that can contribute to dismantling the resulting mindset, but I remain cautious about granting the church more attention than it deserves.

You might also like:

Rapture Practice by Aaron Hartzler

Going Clear by Lawrence Wright

A Queer and Pleasant Danger by Kate Bornstein

Becoming

Cover image for Becoming by Michelle Obama by Michelle Obama

ISBN 978-1-5247-6313-8

I was ambitious, though I didn’t know exactly what I was shooting for. Now I think it’s one of the most useless questions an adult can ask a child—What do you want to be when you grow up? As if growing up is finite. As if at some point you become something and that’s the end.”

Michelle Robinson Obama, a future Princeton graduate, lawyer, hospital administrator, mother, and First Lady of the United States, grew up on the South Side of Chicago. Her father worked for the municipal utility company, and was slowly losing his health to multiple sclerosis. Her mother Marian stayed home with Michelle and her brother Craig while they were growing up, and then returned to work at a bank. Eventually, Marian would live quietly in the White House with her daughter and granddaughters. Michelle’s post-White House memoir, Becoming, chronicles her childhood, her education, her marriage, and their journey to America’s most famous address.

I was personally most interested in the section of Becoming that comes between Michelle going off to college and meeting her husband, and their arrival in the White House. I rarely enjoy reading about people’s childhoods, and the period of the election and her husband’s time as President were pretty well known to me already. The section in between, however, offered a vulnerable glimpse into the sacrifices involved in being married to a rising political star, and the difficulty of trying to find your passion when you go to sleep every night beside someone whose “forceful intellect and ambition could possibly end up swallowing” your own. Michelle Obama’s path to career and motherhood was a rocky one, but she breaks taboos by sharing her decision to quit practicing law despite an expensive Ivy League education, and also talks openly about her miscarriages and fertility treatments, sharing that “a miscarriage is lonely, painful, and demoralizing almost on a cellular level. When you have one, you will likely mistake it for a personal failure, which it is not.”

Although this is Michelle’s memoir and story, Becoming also offers an intimate portrait of the former President from the person who sees his most human side, and is not a bit dazzled by him. “For me, it had always been important that people see Barack as human and not as some otherworldly savior,” she writes of her husband. One clear illustration of his priorities comes from her recounting of how Barack blew his deadline for his first memoir because he kept putting it off in favour of his work as a political organizer. They had to repay the advance, and it would be several more years before Dreams from My Father was completed, and released by a different publisher. Overall she does a wonderful job of evoking what his intelligence and ambition have meant for their lives, particularly in passages where she writes about “sleeping in the same bed with it, sitting at the breakfast table with it,” and later, “Barack’s potential rode along to school with the girls and to work with me. It was there even when we didn’t want it to be there, adding a strange energy to everything.”

Many people have enthused about the idea of the former First Lady running for office herself, but Michelle seems thoroughly uninterested in starting a political dynasty. She is the more practical, if not the more cynical, answer to her husband’s hope and optimism, a man who “seemed at times beautifully oblivious to the giant rat race of life.” At the municipal level, she writes, “I had never been one to hold city hall in high regard. Having grown up on the South Side, I had little faith in politics.” Even of her husband, she believed he could have a more profound impact by continuing to work as an organizer, or for a non-profit, rather than running for office. While she gave her blessing for him to run for President, she did not in her heart believe that America would elect a black man. Trying to put rumours and speculation to rest, she closes baldly, “I’ll say it here directly: I have no intention of running for office, ever. I’ve never been a fan of politics, and my experience over the last ten years has done little to change that.”

You might also like The Moment of Lift by Melinda Gates

What Matters Most

Cover image for What Matters Most by Chanel Reynolds by Chanel Reynolds

ISBN 978-0-06-268943-6

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

“It turns out the hardest thing I’d ever had to do wasn’t removing medical support; it was figuring out how to tell Gabi his dad was dead.”

In July 2009, Chanel Reynolds’ husband José was struck by a turning vehicle while riding his bike in Seattle. For a week, he hovered on the cusp of life and death, long enough for Chanel to realize that they absolutely, definitely did not have their shit together. Their wills were written, but unsigned. She didn’t know how much insurance they had, or what it covered. She couldn’t even remember to bring a copy of his insurance card to the hospital. She didn’t know how to reach the paternal side of his family without the passcode to his phone. The list went on and on. They had a mortgage that absolutely required two salaries, and now they had no salaries at all, as managing his medical care, and then his funeral, became her full-time job, along with caring for their five-year-old son, Gabriel. What Matters Most follows Reynolds through the weeks and months after the accident, as she navigates the convoluted bureaucracy of death in America today.

The larger part of What Matters Most consists of Reynolds’ memoir about her husband’s accident, the decision to remove medical support, and the fall-out from his death. She is brutally honest about the mistakes they unwittingly made in the nine years of their marriage leading up to it, as well as her struggles in the days, weeks, and even years that followed. Grief is a strange country, but Reynolds takes us there vividly, through all the wild ups and downs, and unexpected turns of such a loss. This account also follows her into single motherhood, and through picking up the pieces of her life, and having to imagine an entirely new future for herself and their son. Her style is forthright, and occasionally irreverent, but still very affecting; she had me in tears more than once. The memoir portion stands well on its own and is worth reading quite apart from the advice Reynolds also provides.

Interspersed with the memoir sections are chapters drawn from the work Reynolds has done on her website, Get Your Shit Together. Several years after her husband’s passing, she felt compelled to share what she had learned, and try to help others avoid finding themselves in similar circumstances in the wake of a tragedy. Reynolds is not a lawyer or a financial planner, so her lists and advice are broad and general, hitting highlights such as insurance, wills, powers of attorney, and so forth. Her suggested tasks are as small as updating the medical and emergency information in your cell phone, and as big as writing, signing, and notarizing your last will and testament. While intended for an American audience, it would likely provide food for thought, and a kick in the pants to anyone who doesn’t have their affairs in order, regardless of nationality. In modern society, death has become an extremely bureaucratic and paperwork intensive event, placing significant mental demands on people who are already struggling with the emotional consequences of loss. What Matters Most encourages readers to help spare their loved ones this additional burden so that they can focus on grieving and healing.

You might also like Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

The Valedictorian of Being Dead

Cover image for The Valedictorian of Being Dead by Heather B. Armstrongby Heather B. Armstrong

ISBN 978-1-5011-9704-8

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

 “When you want to be dead, there’s nothing quite like being dead.”

With the tag line “Our lady of perpetual depression” Heather B. Armstrong has documented her mental health struggles over the years on her dooce blog, mixed in with stories about her life and family, leaving Mormonism while living in Utah, and becoming one of the internet’s first professional bloggers (and getting fired from her day job as a result). In more recent years, she has shared her divorce, and raising her two daughters alone, and even semi-retired from blogging due to the changing nature of sponsorship, and the increasing demands of influencer marketing. The Valedictorian of Being Dead recounts her most recent bout of severe depression, and the experimental treatment she underwent to try to reset her brain. Ten times over three weeks, doctors used propofol anesthesia—yes, the Michael Jackson drug—to induce a coma-like state, reducing brain activity to the bare minimum before bringing her back up in an effort to gain the benefits of electroconvulsive therapy without the negative side effects. For Armstrong, the treatment was life changing.

Given that she was one of the internet’s first big bloggers, it probably isn’t surprising that the first blog I ever followed was Heather B. Armstrong’s dooce blog, way back in the day before she was even a mom, let alone a “mommy blogger.” However, I fell off with reading somewhere along the way, probably because the increased focus on parenting wasn’t particularly interesting to a college student. So when I saw her memoir at ALA, I thought it would be cool to catch up. And indeed, I was pulled right back into what I enjoyed about her writing style, which is energetic, descriptive, and often darkly funny. “When she told me about my dazzling performance, I reminded her that when I want to do something well, I become the valedictorian of doing that thing. No one does dead better,” she writes after her mother describes witnessing her first descent into the abyss. She is equally adept at evoking the depths of depression, and the alien feeling of her own body while in that state.

Armstrong is accompanied on her journey by her mother, who takes her to every treatment, and has to watch her child sink down into near-death ten times. While Armstrong remembers nothing, her mother has to watch the doctors grab her daughter’s almost lifeless body, and intubate her as quickly as possible so that she is not deprived of oxygen. Their supportive relationship was particularly poignant to me with the knowledge that Armstrong’s departure from the Mormon faith had strained her family relationships. There are a lot of affecting scenes in the book, but the one that really choked me up was when she describes how her mother once very matter-of-factly told her that their relationship would never be the same again without Jesus. This coldness is quite the opposite of the relationship that is illustrated in this book.

While Armstrong writes forthrightly about her mother and stepfather, and how they shared in this experience with her, she is more circumspect in the way she writes around her ex-husband, and about her father. Her ex is chiefly present in her fear of losing her children. In fact, the reason she let her depression go on so long, and get so bad without treatment, was because she was afraid he would find out how sick she was, and take her daughters away. Her relationship with her father is also fraught, and she had not intended to share the experimental treatment with him until her mother requested that she do so. There is a lot going on beneath the surface of these two relationships that is not deeply delved into, and yet the story is significantly shaped by their absence.

While the body of the text is written by Armstrong, and focuses on her personal experience, the afterword is by the doctor who led the study. While he is hopeful and excited by the preliminary work his team has done, he brings the necessary emphasis that this still an experimental treatment in need of further investigation. It balances Armstrong’s personal experience of success with the need for additional study in order to better understand how and why such a treatment might be successful, or what its limitations might be. Altogether, it is a fascinating account of one woman’s mental health struggles, and how they might intersect with treatment and acceptance more broadly.

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Marbles by Ellen Forney

Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan

Canada Reads Along: By Chance Alone

Cover image for By Chance Alone by Max Eisen by Max Eisen

ISBN 9781443448550

 “After many visits back to Auschwitz, I can also see that the physical remnants of the Holocaust continue to deteriorate, and that the first-hand witnesses, like me, are moving on in years.”

In the spring of 1944, Max Eisen and his family were rounded up from their home in a Hungarian-controlled region of the former Czechoslovakia, and deported to Auschwitz. This was the final step after five slow years of increasing hate towards Jews, and restriction of their rights and freedoms. Max’s entire family would perish in the camps, lost to the gas chambers, and to medical experimentation. But a lucky chance, resulting in a position as an assistant at the prisoner’s infirmary, would allow Max to survive, and bear witness, fulfilling his final promise to his father by becoming a dedicated Holocaust educator, and now memoirist. By Chance Alone recounts his childhood, time at Auschwitz, and his path to Canada.

Max was fifteen when he entered the camps as slave labourer for the Nazis. As he would discover later, his mother and younger siblings, including his infant sister, were sent directly to the gas chambers. Revisiting these events more than seventy years later, he brings an unusual perspective, simultaneously capturing his youthful naïveté about what was going on around him, and the later knowledge he would gain about the depth and scope of the atrocities. For the most part, he remains in the moment, recalling the events as they occurred, though occasionally he provides information he would not have access to until later. For example, when his father and uncle were selected, he had no idea what their fate would be, only that he would never see them again. Decades later would he learn that they had been chosen to be subjects in the Nazi’s twisted medical experiments.

While Mengele’s experiments are relatively well known, Max’s account takes the reader inside a different part of the medical establishment at Auschwitz, where imprisoned doctors cared for fellow prisoners with limited equipment and resources. Max worked under Polish dissident Dr. Tadeusz Orzeszko, who he believes to have been a member of the resistance, working to that end even while he was imprisoned. The additional comfort and resources Max was able to access as a medical assistant built up his strength, and were likely crucial to his survival of the death marches the Nazis took their Jewish prisoners on during the final days of the war. However, the end of the war did not mark the end of his ordeal as a refugee; a return to his home town did not yield a warm welcome. He recounts all of this in a straightforward prose style, bearing witness to what was done to his people, as he promised his father he would.

By Chance Alone was defended on Canada Reads 2019 by science broadcaster Ziya Tong, who mounted a thorough and impassioned defence that emphasized the importance of Holocaust education in inoculating Canadians against hatred of all types. Tong cited a study that found one in five young Canadians are not sure what the Holocaust was. She felt that it was urgently important to for Canadians to read a book that would take the Holocaust from distant, colourless historical event to a living, breathing person who experiences those events. Armed with a variety of statistics, as well as enthusiasm for her subject, she urged Canadians to read By Chance Alone and remain vigilant against the rise of hate crimes in our country, and around the world.

By Chance Alone faced a few crucial moments throughout the week, including comparison of its writing to style to more lyrical works such as Brother. Tong made a persuasive case for Eisen’s narrative style, however, arguing that he was writing the voice of a child, but with the wisdom of a ninety-year-old. Other panelists praised Eisen’s attention to detail, and the hypnotic nature of his simple prose style. Tong also made a strong demonstration for the book’s contemporary relevance, bringing to the table a recent photo of Max outside a synagogue, which had been defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti only last year.

On Day Two, panelist Lisa Ray raised the question of what By Chance Alone adds to the body of Holocaust literature that is not already there, contrasting Eisen’s style to that of Elie Wiesel. In her initial rebuttal, Tong pointed to the infirmary as an entirely unique contribution that provided information about the camp that even other internees did not necessarily have. The subject was raised again on Day Three, where panelist and free agent Joe Zee argued that each perspective on the Holocaust was unique and new, and that it is history told in a way that cannot be learned from a textbook. It came down to a close call that day, with Ray and Yanic Truesdale voting against By Chance Alone, while Tong, Zee, and Chuck Comeau voted against Brother. However, the book carried on to the finale.

With one vote each from the remaining defenders on the last day, it was up to the free agents to determine the final result. Lisa Ray voted against By Chance Alone for the second day in a row. However, both Joe Zee and Yanic Truesdale voted against Homes. After much discussion on the final day of debates about the voice of the youth, and the wisdom of the elderly, both panelists were compelled by the argument that Holocaust voices are fading, and soon there will be no more living witnesses to tell their stories. Soon the books will be all we have left to ensure that we never forget. And so By Chance Alone became the winner of Canada Reads 2019.

That’s it for Canada Reads 2019! Thanks for reading along. Past winners:

Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto

Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis

The Illegal by Lawrence Hill

Ru by Kim Thuy

Canada Reads Along: Homes

Cover image for Homes by Winnie Yeung and Abu Bakr al Rabeeah by Winnie Yeung and Abu Bakr al Rabeeah

ISBN 978-1-988298-29-0

 “As much as father wanted us to believe we could keep living our lives, it wasn’t true. He was wrong. We couldn’t pretend this war wasn’t happening.”

In 2010, Abu Bakr al Rabeeah fled increasing Sunni/Shi’a tensions in his native Iraq, along with his parents, siblings, and members of his extended family. They sought refuge in Homs, Syria, where some relatives already lived. Unfortunately, they had fled right into the teeth of the Arab Spring, and the Assad regime’s crackdown on the uprisings inspired by the movement. The streets of Syria became war zones, as the state military fought with anti-government militias for control. Mosques were shot up, businesses were bombed, and schools exploded. Homes is the story of the al Rabeeah family’s journey from Iraq to Syria and Syria to Canada, as told to Bakr’s English teacher, Winnie Yeung.

Despite being a true story, Homes is written in the style of a novel, a work of creative non-fiction recounting the memories of Bakr and his family, based on interviews given to Winnie Yeung. It is both simply written, and yet striking. Little details, such as the word “first,” become particularly poignant, as Bakr describes his “first car bomb” or his “first massacre,” things you hope to live a lifetime without seeing, let alone more than once while still in elementary school. Bakr’s childhood is full of such events, so common they become almost mundane, even as the trauma continues to mount.

Juxtaposed against the horrors of the civil war are the ordinary rhythms of the family’s daily life in Syria. Bakr and his sibling must still go to school when it is open. He plays soccer with his friends and cousins. Not really knowing any better, he and one of his cousins amuse themselves by collecting spent bullet casings, without considering the lives those bullets may have taken. The families celebrate Ramadan, and continue to attend mosque, despite the risk of another shooting. His father and older brother run a bakery, selling his mother’s recipe for soft, chewy Iraqi bread, a contrast to the dryer pita-style bread more commonly found in Homs. Life goes on with the illusion of normalcy, until it is shattered again by the next attack.

As the story moves to Canada, Homes also conveys the profound loneliness of leaving everyone you know, and everything you love, behind for a new country where you do not even speak the language. From business owner of a bakery, Bakr’s father is reduced to taking English classes, unable to care for his family in the manner to which he is accustomed. A better life has been promised, but when will it materialize? It is a blessing to be safe, but into the void of fearing for one’s life, new anxieties gather to take its place. Homes ends here, but in many ways, the al Rabeeah family’s journey has only just begun its next chapter.

Homes was defended on Canada Reads 2019 by musician Chuck Comeau, whose quiet debate style emphasized love, family, and hope. He particularly highlighted the father-son relationship, as well as the partnership between Bakr and his teacher that brought the book into being, first as an after school project, and then as a published work. He also emphasized that fact that it is essential for Western culture to have more positive portrayals of Muslim people, rather than only seeing them as stock character terrorists in film and television.

Homes received one strike on Day Two from Lisa Ray, and one vote against it from Ziya Tong on Day One, who said it was too much like her own book, but otherwise it moved through the week unscathed. Indeed, Homes slid quietly into the finale to go head to head with By Chance Alone, which Tong was defending. Discussion on the final day of Canada Reads 2019 ranged over several questions, including what each of the remaining books helped panelists to understand, why the free agents should vote against their opponents’ books, and whether or not the books could move Canadians to action. Many of the panelists brought up the relative ages of the two authors. While both were writing about their youth, one is still a teen, and the other is a nonagenarian, representing both ends of the life spectrum. It was pointed out that the voices of both the youth and the elderly can be discounted by society at large.

When it came time to vote, Ziya Tong of course voted against Homes, and Chuck Comeau against By Chance Alone. The three free agents cast their ballots, with Joe Zee voting against Homes, saying that he was persuaded by the argument that Holocaust voices are fading. Lisa Ray voted against By Chance Alone, saying that Homes was the book she wanted all of Canada to read. This put the final vote in the hands of Yanic Truesdale, who had previously voted twice against By Chance Alone. In a surprise change of heart, Truesdale cast his final ballot against Homes, also citing the argument that the voices of Holocaust survivors will soon be gone. Thus, By Chance Alone by Max Eisen was crowned the winner of Canada Reads 2019.

Catch up on Days One, Two, and Three of the debates, and check back tomorrow for my review of the winner!