Category: Canada Reads Winners

Canada Reads Along 2022: Five Little Indians

Cover image for Five Little Indians by Michelle Good

by Michelle Good

ISBN 9781443459198

“There are no English words to describe how one woman walked into that lodge, and another walked out. All Clara knew was that it took her back. Back to the birch grove and the angel songs. Back to who she was before Sister Mary, before the school, before they tried to beat her into a little brown white girl.”

Five Little Indians follows five former residential school students as they try to make new lives for themselves in 1960s Vancouver, while being haunted by the demons of their past. Maisie, Clara, Lucy, Kenny, and Howie are all survivors of the Arrowhead Bay Indian School. Except they don’t always feel like survivors; sometimes they feel like the walking dead. Something in them was taken at Arrowhead Bay that can never be replaced, something broken that can never be repaired. It takes a different form for each of them, but the scars are always there, long after they’ve escaped or aged out of the school. “We were children, me and Lily, and neither of us survived, even though I’m still walking,” Clara explains, reflecting on a friend who died at the school.

Five Little Indians is told from alternating perspectives, usually in the third person, but occasionally in first. I felt this first person POV particularly viscerally in Maisie’s story. We meet Maisie through Lucy, who ages out of the system with nowhere to go and lands on Maisie’s doorstep on the Downtown Eastside. Maisie has been out of the school system for a year, and from Lucy’s perspective, she seems world-wise, and like she has her life together. She has a job, her own apartment, and a kind boyfriend who adores her. But when we get inside Maisie’s head, we are quickly confronted with the pain she is hiding, the cracks in her façade that she is trying so hard to plaster over so that neither her boyfriend nor Lucy will see her messy pain. This is by no means an easy book in any respect, but Maisie’s chapter was one of the hardest, grappling with the fallout of sexual abuse, sexual self-harm, and addiction.

Although she is not a POV character, Mariah’s name heads several chapters in Five Little Indians, and she plays an important role. Clara first meets her when she is run back across the Canadian border after a disastrous attempt to get involved with American Indian Movement. Mariah takes Clara in and, over the course of a winter, helps heal her, not just in body, but in spirit. Through Mariah, Clara finds a way to reconnect with the traditions of her people without the fear and self-hatred that the nuns drove deep into her bones. Although Mariah is not a residential school survivor herself, she represents an important connection back to the heritage the schools tried to brutally sever. She is the unbroken link to which Clara and her generation can reach back and reconnect, but only if they can see past their own pain to take her hand.

Throughout the book there are also other Indigenous secondary characters who did not attend the mission schools for various reasons, sometimes because their families hid them, or because they were Metis and therefore were not required to attend. The bond that grows up among the survivors is of a different sort from those who did not share that terrible experience, and many of them struggle to understand the long shadow it casts. Early in the book, Maisie has a very nice boyfriend, but she cannot accept his love for fear that allowing him close will let him see how broken and soiled she considers herself. Also poignant is Kendra, the daughter of two survivors. Her father was an escapee of the residential school system, but his trauma never allowed him to stop running, so he lives on the move, frequently leaving his family behind. Kendra struggles against the pain this absenteeism causes her and her mother, grappling with what it means to love her father despite his flaws. In many ways, the reader is invited to face these same challenges, to stretch beyond themselves and their own experiences, to understand, in as far as art makes it possible, the terrible pain the residential school system caused, and is still causing the Indigenous community in Canada.

Five Little Indians was defended on Canada Reads 2022 by Christian Allaire, an Ojibway author and fashion writer from Nipissing. The book has been particularly topical this week, as Indigenous activists head to the Vatican in pursuit of an apology from Pope Francis on behalf of the Catholic Church for atrocities committed in the residential school system. Allaire’s defense of the book spoke to the fact that residential schools are often discussed only in a historical context, even though the bodies of lost children are still being exhumed. The echoes of the intergenerational trauma are still being felt and the last residential school did not close until 1996. Allaire’s defense also highlighted the fact that the book is largely set in the aftermath, and therefore focuses not on the trauma itself but on the messy, non-linear attempt to heal.

As the last challenger standing, Malia Baker had a difficult challenge to face against themes as important as truth and reconciliation, something she briefly acknowledged in her opening statement on the final day before pivoting to discuss her own book’s strengths. While there were a few moments this year where defenders spoke about reading as escapism, or the need for hopeful endings, overall this was a panel that really respected the legitimacy of difficult reads. This is also the first year I can recall that the CBC offered a content warning regarding the themes of all the books, and provided accompanying support resources.

Five Little Indians moved quietly through the first half of the week, the only book not to have any votes against it on the first two days, where we saw Life in the City of Dirty Water and What Strange Paradise eliminated. Meanwhile, Christian Allaire consistently cast his vote against Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez. Both books feature a cast of characters from disenfranchised communities, and employ alternating perspectives including both first and third person narration. The structural and thematic similarities led me to suspect this was strategic voting on Allaire’s part, something he confirmed when he appeared for a post-victory interview on Jael Richardson’s Instagram channel. When targeting Scarborough, Allaire narrowed in on the fact that the even larger cast of POV characters made it harder to get to know them compared to the core cast in Five Little Indians. He also spoke to the character of Sylvie and the Beaudoin family, saying that as the only Indigenous characters in the book he found their development lacking, and that Sylvie primarily existed to in the narrative to serve other characters’ stories. Malia Baker attempted to counter this line of argument by highlighting Sylvie’s role a storyteller who is still coming into her own voice during the main events of the book.

It was clear by the third day of debate that both Malia Baker and Mark Tewksbury viewed Five Little Indians as the book to beat if they wanted to head into the finale. They both voted against it, while free agents Suzanne Simard and Tareq Hadhad voted against Washington Black. Due to the tiebreaking rules this left Christian Allaire, who had voted against Scarborough, to have to move his vote to one of the two books up for elimination. Since one of them was his own, naturally he voted to eliminate Washington Black, taking Five Little Indians to the finale against Scarborough. In his final defense, Allaire called on readers to accept a little bit of discomfort in order to empathize with the truths of residential school survivors and enable healing. In an unusually unified final vote, all of the panelists except for Scarborough defender Malia Baker voted to make Five Little Indians the winner of Canada Reads 2022.

That’s it for Canada Reads Along 2022! Thanks for joining me and don’t forget to check out some of the past winners like We Have Always Been Here (2020) and By Chance Alone (2019).

If you liked Five Little Indians you might also enjoy:

Birdie by Tracey Lindberg

The Break by Katherena Vermette

Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead

Canada Reads Along 2021: Jonny Appleseed

by Joshua Whitehead

ISBN 9781551527253

“My home is full of hope and ghosts.”

Since leaving the Peguis reservation, Jonny has been doing cybersex work to pay the rent in Winnipeg, rarely traveling back home especially after his grandmother’s death. But when his step-father dies, his mother calls him home for the funeral and Jonny has only a few days to get together the money he needs for the trip back to the rez. As he works to scrape together the rent plus funds for the drive up north, Jonny reflects on his childhood, his relationship with his mother and grandmother, and the fraught intersection between his indigenous heritage and his queer identity. Homecoming is a complex reckoning with the self, and the family that made him.

The relationships with the women in his family are at the heart of the story, as Jonny was raised by his mother, who had him young, and his grandmother. His father left when he was a toddler and then died tragically, and his step-father was never a positive force in his life, even if his mother loved him. In fact, for self-identified glitter princess Jonny, masculinity has always been fraught, especially where it intersects with his indigeneity. He has had to play “straight on the rez in order to be NDN” and in the city he has played “white in order to be queer.” Part of this tension is embodied by the symbol of a bear. Jonny’s family is bear clan, but within the queer community, he cannot claim this title due to an entirely separate meaning. It is only one small way in which he feels he has been forced to divide his identities against himself. Part of his journey of self-reclamation is laying claim to titles like Two Spirit and indigiqueer that try to forge the two halves of himself back into a single whole.

Running through the story is Jonny’s poignant relationship with Tias. They have been friends since childhood, and have long been lovers, but Tias is not fully reconciled with what his love for Jonny means about his own sexual identity. Tias also has a long-time girlfriend, and the three are caught in a complex relationship, where Jordan and Jonny know that they share Tias, but do not openly acknowledge it to one another. Yet Jonny finds himself unable to hate her because she reminds him in many ways of his grandmother; “they were both little women with the ferocious power of a behemoth inside them.” The relationship Joshua Whitehead has created here is simultaneously tender and tragic; in order for Jonny to have love, it is not enough for him to be reconciled with himself, he also needs for Tias to do the same.

Bodies and physicality are an important part of Jonny’s story, the site of both injuries and pleasure, the one often morphing into the other. He also literally makes his living by his body, mostly selling cam shows and the occasional live meeting with a client, because his mother taught him that if he likes something and he is good at it, he should never do it for free. As a child, Jonny’s long hair is simultaneously a symbol of his indigeneity and part of the perception of his queerness, the two pulling against one another. We he finally cuts it off for a fauxhawk, it is his grandmother, in her admiration for whiteness, who allows the change. Yet she is also the person who first sees Jonny for what he is, and gives him the term Two Spirit to describe it. Straight bodies also tell stories, if in less fraught ways. Jonny’s stepfather’s body “was like a graveyard of injuries and ailments, so alive with experiences, while mine was riddled with shame.” As Jonny puts it, “our bodies are a library, and our stories are written like braille on the skin.” Jonny Appleseed braids together past and present, the mundane and the spiritual, the crass and the poetic into a visceral exploration of family, identity, and sexuality that will make you feel like you have walked a mile in Jonny’s shoes.

Jonny Appleseed was defended on Canada Reads 2021 by actor and filmmaker Devery Jacobs. As a queer Mohawk woman herself, Jacobs spoke passionately to the importance of this narrative, highlighting the fact that it is the first book by a Two Spirit indigenous author that has been represented at the table in the twenty year history of Canada Reads. Her defence repeatedly touched on themes such as resilience, healing, and the power to transmute pain into humour in order to survive and thrive. Describing it as a full body reading experience, Jacobs leaned into the physicality of the narrative, including the sexuality, arguing that it was a book she needed herself as a teen.

Jonny Appleseed went into the finale against Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi, defended by Roger Mooking, another title also published by the small, independent Arsenal Pulp Press. Both books touched on themes of family, trauma, healing, resilience, and forgiveness, making the final day of debates particularly interesting. Host Ali Hassan posed a series of questions that asked the panelists to consider which book most effectively depicted complicated relationships, the multidimensional theme of home, and fresh perspectives on love. However, most of the panelists spoke to how both books effectively achieved these ends. Paul Sun-Hyung Lee noted the relationship between Tias and Jonny, while Rosey Edeh was moved by Jonny’s relationship with his mother and grandmother.

The arguments for Jonny Appleseed throughout the week clearly made a particularly strong impression on panelist Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, who spoke about how hard he found the book to read. However, he credited the influence of the debates in causing him to re-examine why he wasn’t initially able to see the healing and perseverance in the novel. He also cited Jonny Appleseed as the book that brought him a fresh and compelling perspective that he had never considered or been privy to before.

In the final vote of the week, Devery Jacobs and Roger Mooking cast their ballots against one another’s books, while Scott Helman voted against Butter Honey Pig Bread, and Rosey Edeh voted against Jonny Appleseed. The final vote went to Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, who voted against Butter Honey Pig Bread, making Jonny Appleseed the first book by an indigenous author to win Canada Reads.

You might also like:

When Everything Feels Like the Movies by Raziel Reed

The Break by Katherena Vermette

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground by Alicia Elliott

Canada Reads Along 2020: We Have Always Been Here

Cover image for We Have Always Been Here by Samra Habibby Samra Habib

ISBN 978-0-7352-35007

Content Warnings: Sexual violence, homophobia, sexism, racism, child marriage.

“Azaad is a funny word in Urdu. In most instances, it means ‘freedom.’ Freedom from your captors, war, and oppressive regimes. But when used to describe a woman, it is meant to imply that she is too wild to be tamed by those who have the right to tame her: her parents and all the men in her life whose honour it is her duty to prioritize before her own desires.”

Samra Habib’s family came to Canada from Pakistan in 1991, seeking freedom from the oppression they faced as members of the minority Ahmadi sect of Muslims, which the Sunni majority does not recognize as a form of Islam at all. Along with her immediate family, they were accompanied by her first cousin, a young man about ten years her senior. When she was thirteen, she learned that her mother intended for her to marry her cousin when she turned eighteen. However, the marriage eventually took place when Habib was only sixteen years of age. For years, Habib lived a double life, secretly married to her cousin while still attending high school like an average Canadian teenager. We Have Always Been Here chronicles the complicated journey to reconciling her Muslim beliefs with her queer identity, and coming to terms with the choices her family made for her.

In this memoir about the intersection of family, religion, and sexual identity, Habib shows an extremely touching thoughtfulness about her relationship with her mother, from whom she was estranged for a period of time following her divorce from her cousin. She stands firm in both her acknowledgment of the wrong her parents did her, and her ability to try to understand the circumstances that made them into the kind of people who would take such a step. After all, she had “only ever been surrounded by women who didn’t have the blueprint for claiming their lives.” Habib’s memoir takes us deep into her own thoughts, feelings, and emotions, but cannot offer us quite the same insight into how her mother started as someone who would marry her minor daughter to her first cousin, and came to be a woman who could accept the fact that her daughter is queer, and dates all kinds of other queer people. “To better understand myself, I need to understand how she got here,” Habib concludes. “I intend to spend the rest of the time she’s alive finding out.”

Habib’s father is a fascinating contradiction, a man who refused to accept condolences for having three beautiful daughters before a son finally came along, but who was also known to bellow “Allah hates the loud laughter of women!” Habib’s portrait painfully illustrates how his confidence was unmade by the family’s move to Canada, where he is unable to reclaim the status to which he was accustomed in Pakistan as a successful businessman. He is the kind of father who disagrees with engaging a teenager to her first cousin, and obliquely offers to put a stop to it. But he is also mercurial enough that his adolescent daughter knows instinctively that there will be a price to pay for accepting that offer. Even though he was not the architect of her child marriage, Habib’s rapprochement with her father seems more halting and tentative. I was also deeply curious about the experiences of her sisters and brother in this same household, and how they were uniquely affected by growing up under similar circumstances. However, that is perhaps their own story to tell, and Habib does not dwell on it.

Although leaving Pakistan helped her family avoid one type of religious persecution, in Canada Habib still faced racism, homophobia, and anti-Muslim discrimination. “Sure, we were no longer afraid of being killed by religious extremists on our way to school, but not knowing whether we’d be able to make next month’s rent didn’t ease my mind either. We had our asylum and our government-issued blankets, but I still didn’t feel free to be a child,” Habib writes of the precarious transition to life in Canada. School was a mixed blessing. Though “people who devote themselves to learning have always been my people, my pockets of safety,” she experienced the transition from ESL classes with other immigrants to the mainstream classroom as a source of trauma. Education was her weapon, but school was not always a safe place.

We Have Always Been Here was defended on Canada Reads 2020 by actor Amanda Brugel. The book slid under the radar on the first day of debates, as the discussion that day centered on Radicalized and Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club. However, Brugel was an engaged debater from the first, showing herself early on as one of the strongest defenders at the table this year. She came out swinging on the very first question, arguing vociferously against Radicalized by Cory Doctorow, saying that it centered the perspectives of angry men, and that the only woman of colour protagonist was less developed than the smart toaster in “Unauthorized Bread.”

Indeed, We Have Always Been Here faced little criticism over the course of a week of debates. The most notable critique came from Akil Augustine, who argued that Habib did not do a good job of explaining how she could remain a Muslim after she came into her queer identity. Augustine specifically felt that given the importance of the religious texts in Islam, she should have mounted a theological argument referencing the textual passages that supported her position, as this would be most effective in persuading other Muslims to her way of thinking. George Canyon also noted he would have liked more contextual information about Pakistan and her family’s history there.

Although she didn’t often use the term, Brugel also argued that her book was the most intersectional, and therefore best represented the widest variety of Canadians within a single story. Samra is a queer woman of colour, a Muslim, and a refugee, providing multiple points of entry into her narrative. In keeping with this year’s theme, Brugel felt the book had the potential to bring the largest number of diverse Canadian identities into focus, making them feel safe, seen, and recognized.

Brugel described reading this book as being like reading the diary of a soul mate she had never met, and the other panelists seemed to agree with her, especially after they became free agents. George Canyon praised We Have Always Been Here for the way Habib’s writing evoked the Pakistani setting in the first part of the book. Canyon also joined Akil Augustine and Kaniehtiio Horn in naming Samra as one of the characters from all the books that stuck with them most, and Alayna Fender named her the character that most embodied compassion for the messiness of being human.

Going into the finale, We Have Always Been Here seemed a clear favourite, never having had a single vote cast against it by any of the panelists. In her closing remarks, Brugel asked her fellow panelists to put aside the question of fiction vs. non-fiction, and instead vote for the book that changed them, and impacted their life after the last page. Despite a lively final day of debate, when the ballots were read, everyone except Son of a Trickster defender Kaniehtiio Horn had voted to name We Have Always Been Here by Samra Habib the historic winner of Canada Reads 2020. This marked the first time since Canada Reads began in 2002 that a woman panelist defending a book written by a woman took home the top prize.

Thanks for joining me for Canada Reads Along 2020! Need to catch up? Start with Radicalized by  Cory Doctorow.

You can also browse for more Canadian reads, including past Canada Reads contenders! Past winners include:

Canada Reads Along 2019: 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 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.

___

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

Canada Reads Along 2017: Fifteen Dogs

Cover image for Fifteen Dogs by André Alexisby André Alexis

ISBN 978-1-55245-305-6

“Perfect understanding between beings is no guarantor of happiness. To perfectly understand another’s madness, for instance, is to be mad oneself. The veil that separates earthly beings is, at times, a tragic barrier, but it is also, at times, a great kindness.”

In a Toronto tavern, the gods Apollo and Hermes strike a bet. When Hermes wonders what it would be like if animals had human intelligence, his brother Apollo wagers a year’s servitude that the animals—any animals Hermes would like—would be unhappier than humans if given human intelligence. The wager is struck, and fifteen dogs in a nearby animal shelter suddenly gain human consciousness—all while still in possession of their canine urges and instincts. As they develop a new language to convey their transformed understanding of the world, the pack becomes divided between those who embrace the new way of thinking and communicating, and those who wish to resist change at all costs. The gods watch—and occasionally interfere—as the dogs try to navigate this abrupt transition. But will any of them die happy?

Fifteen Dogs is an apologue, which is a fancy term for a fable, of which the beast fable is the most common type. Here the twist is that the dogs aren’t just unquestioned allegories for humans, but literal dogs given human intelligence by outside intervention. The distance—or lack thereof—between the two is what drives home the point. We are reminded that humans, too, have baser instincts and urges. It is a sort of defamiliarization that gives us just enough distance from our own nature and behaviour that we are able to see it with fresh eyes. The events of Fifteen Dogs can be rather brutal, and yet this clever devoice only serves to amplify that fact of our nature, lending the story additional poignancy.

Although we begin with fifteen dogs, the story quickly narrows to focus on three: Majnoun, Benjy, and Prince. Majnoun and Prince both depart the pack when the leader, Atticus, decides that the dogs will no longer use their new language, and will instead try to live as if the change never took place. This makes for an interesting allegory about traditionalist thinking and anti-intellectualism. Prince in particular is ousted due to his invention of canine poetry, which several of the other dogs find disturbing. However, most of the story follows Majnoun as he joins a human family, and forges an unusual bond with Nira, who knows he possesses human intelligence, and her husband Miguel, who refuses to acknowledge that fact. All but one of the female dogs are killed by page 35, and Nira is the most significant female character in the story. The dogs continue to refer to the females as bitches, a fact that becomes increasingly uncomfortable after they gain human intelligence. The ousting of the female perspective is noteworthy, even if it could potentially be intended as a commentary on human nature.

Fifteen Dogs was defended in this year’s Canada Reads competition by YouTube star and spoken word artist Humble the Poet. The theme for this year’s program was “the one book Canada needs now.” The other candidates chose to highlight specific issues, from the plight of Indigenous women, to climate change, to the consequences of technology, and Humble differentiated Fifteen Dogs from the other books in his defence by arguing that it helps us understand all of these issues by giving readers a deeper understanding of our fundamental human nature, which is the root of all of our other problems. Humble described the book as both timeless and current in his opening remarks, and he returned to this point repeatedly throughout the week.

Over the course of the week, many of the panelists discussed whether or not they were dog people, and whether that affected their reading of the book. For some, it helped them relate to the story, while others found it alienating. However, the best point in this regard was not raised by a panelist, but by an audience member in the Q&A after the show. She pointed out how different the impact of this book would be if it was Fifteen Chickens or Fifteen Cows. Indeed, the close relationship humans enjoy with dogs is precisely what makes the allegory so effective, as the panelists readily acknowledged.

Candy Palmater repeatedly tried to raise questions about the fact that almost all of the female dogs die early in the book, with Chantal Kreviazuk seconding this perspective. When Palmater tried to bring it up again during another question on the final day of debate, host Ali Hassan redirected, promising that they would get to that later, but it was not substantially addressed, as Humble always avoided the issue by pointing to Nira. It was especially frustrating to see this line of questioning downplayed after The Break was ousted on the first day, largely based on Brueggergosman’s argument that it lacked redeemable male characters. Author André Alexis did speak about it later, on q with Tom Powers, but it did not inform the debate. Alexis also highlighted Nira as the most sympathetic character, the one who has to overcome her own prejudice to accept Majnoun as an intelligent being. However, he admits that he did miss out on the opportunity to explore Rosie’s perspective as the only surviving female dog. I was very happy to hear him acknowledge this, after Humble danced around it all week.

It was suggested a couple times over the course of the week that, because Fifteen Dogs had already won the Giller Prize as well as the Writers Trust Fiction Prize, that Canada Reads should take the opportunity to highlight a different voice. (Interestingly, this is the only book from the short-list that I already owned before the contenders were announced.) Both Brueggergosman and Kreviazuk brought this up, and Brueggergosman made it the core of her closing remarks as she defended Company Town in the finale. Though it received some criticism over the course of the week, prior to the finale, Jody Mitic was the only person who actually cast a vote against Fifteen Dogs, on day two. Candy Palmater had originally planned to vote against it on day one, but changed her mind to cast a strategic vote in an attempt to save The Break. When it came down to the final vote, however, all of the free agents chose to vote against Company Town, making Fifteen Dogs the winner of Canada Reads 2017.

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Need to catch up on Canada Reads Along? Start here with The Break by Katherena Vermette

Canada Reads Along 2016: The Illegal

Cover image for The Illegal by Lawrence Hillby Lawrence Hill

ISBN 978-1-55468-383-3

“Keita wondered whether a person could be punished for having thoughts, or only for committing those thoughts to paper.”

Note: I originally reviewed this title on December 8, 2015. Some parts of that review have been reproduced here. However, I have largely focused on The Illegal in the context of the Canada Reads debates.

Keita Ali is a runner from the tiny island nation of Zantoroland, located in the Indian Ocean. To the north of Zantoroland is Freedom State, one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Many of the residents of Zantoroland are the descendants of slaves who were expelled from Freedom State when slavery was abolished in 1834. Every year, thousands of Zantorolanders try to escape to Freedom State, fleeing poverty, ethnic violence, and anti-LGBT sentiment.  When the regime murders Keita’s father for reporting on events in Zantoroland for international newspapers, Keita knows it is only a matter of time before they come for him as well, so he signs a contract with Anton Hamm, a marathon agent and former Olympian with a reputation for violence. After running a race in Freedom State, Keita disappears into the underground world of “Illegals,” undocumented immigrants living below the radar in Freedom State. Facing blackmail and medical expenses, Keita continues to surface from time to time to run races with significant cash prizes, but his alias—Roger Bannister—begins to attract unwanted attention. Everyone from Immigration Minister and fellow marathoner Rocco Calder, to Lula DiStefano, Queen of the AfricTown slum, to Viola Hill, gay, black, disabled reporter for the Clarkson Evening Telegram, wants to know who Roger Bannister is, and where he came from. Keita must run to win, but winning may garner unwanted attention from the authorities he so desperately needs to avoid.

This week on Canada Reads 2016, The Illegal was defended by Olympian Clara Hughes, who is also a noted mental health advocate. She opened the week by highlighting why it is hurtful to refer to a person (rather than their actions) as illegal, and spoke out against such divisive rhetoric. Her defense also put a spotlight on the global refugee crisis, and the fact that Canada has recently welcomed 25 000 Syrian refugees. Questions for the panel on day one focused on which book least embodied the theme of “starting over,” as well as which book is most relevant to Canada today. All of the other contending titles came in for criticism from at least one of the panelists, but The Illegal passed through the first day of debates largely unscathed, while Minister Without Portfolio by Michael Winter was eliminated.

On day two, Hughes opened by highlighting Lawrence Hill’s clean, clear, concise writing. For me this brought to mind the saying “easy reading is damn hard writing,” which is variously attributed to different authors. Day two was largely about discussing potential weaknesses of the various books, and host Gill Deacon asked the panel to address the fact that The Illegal takes place in two fictional countries. In setting his story on the fictional island nations of Zantoroland and Freedom State, Lawrence Hill is free to borrow elements of immigration stories and policies from countries around the world, exploring the problems that refugees flee, and the tensions within the countries where they seek refuge. The Illegal explores timely issues in a fictional context, and cannot be dismissed as being about one country’s particular problems with immigration, or the fall-out of slavery. However, several of the panelists found the invented setting jarring. Bruce Poon Tip described it as distracting, and Vinay Virmani agreed, adding that he thought Zantoroland and Freedom State were oversimplified. For me, the fictional setting universalized the plight of refugees, but Virmani did make an excellent point that the characters in Freedom State do not really show us what people are afraid of when they try to keep refugees out of their country.

Clara Hughes mounted a solid defense of genre fiction in her rebuttal, arguing that a fictional setting allows readers to let go of what they think they know about any particular country or refugee crisis; the story can embody many struggles. She also felt that setting the book in the near future was effective because it served as a reminder of where we might be headed. Bruce Poon Tip had made what sounded like a somewhat derogatory comparison to Harry Potter while making his point, but Hughes parlayed that over to other significant works of dystopian fiction, including 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale. For me, The Illegal was much like The Handmaid’s Tale in that while it is fictional, it is made up from events and details that have really happened in various places.

Day two was a trying point for The Illegal. Before the panel went on to discussing another novel, Bruce Poon Tip, who was defending Birdie, tried to throw on the table the idea that Hill had already won Canada Reads in 2009. However, this argument didn’t seem to find much traction with the other panelists, who were prepared to treat The Illegal on its own merits. At the beginning of the week I had thought that The Illegal was a potential front runner, but Adam Copeland, who had been defending Minister Without Portfolio, threw out a line that made me think the book might be doomed, comparing The Illegal to a 1990s Will Smith action flick. However, with the exception of defender Farah Mohamed, the panelists surprised me by unanimously voting off Bone and Bread on day two.

Day three focused on craft, with questions about beautiful writing and strong storylines. The Hero’s Walk was the clear favourite for beautiful writing, but Hughes highlighted the way that The Illegal was able to make her feel what it would be like to be an elite runner. Bruce Poon Tip described it as efficient and readable. If The Hero’s Walk got all the love for beautiful writing, The Illegal dominated the conversation about storyline. The energy and pacing were unanimously praised, and Farah Mohamed described it as gripping. Ever one for colourful metaphors, Adam Copeland called The Illegal a rollercoaster for pure story, and said that it punches you in the face from page one. Although Birdie was looking strong in the first half of the week, it did not fare well in this part of the discussion and was voted off on day three.

On the final day of debates, The Illegal faced off against The Hero’s Walk, which was being defended by Vinay Virmani. The panelists were asked to address theme, courage, powerful moments, and what they liked about each of the remaining books. Panelists found a lot of courage in both books, but the death of Keita’s father in The Illegal rose to the top as a powerful moment for several of them. It was evident from day three that Farah Mohamed was leaning towards The Hero’s Walk, just as it was clear that Bruce Poon Tip hadn’t liked that book much, though he said Virmani’s defense had helped him appreciate it more. Adam Copeland was harder to read, and he clarified that he had not meant the comment he made on day two comparing The Illegal to an action movie to be derogatory. With only thirty seconds to make a closing statement, Hughes argued that The Illegal was both a great read and a timely issue, and that it would help create the country we want to forge for tomorrow. Copeland did indeed cast the deciding vote, making The Illegal the winner of Canada Reads 2016.

As has been noted, The Illegal is a significant win for several reasons. Author Lawrence Hill is the first author to win Canada Reads twice. Additionally, after the final debate, Hughes tweeted that she had just learned she was the first female defender to win Canada Reads since 2005. Though books by women have won five times since the show’s inception in 2002, men have largely fared better as panelists.  While it was hard going for The Illegal mid-week, strong pacing and a timely issue helped it triumph, as well as Clara Hughes’ eloquent and gracious defense.

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canada-reads-along-2016It’s not too late to catch up on the Canada Reads debates on CBC!

Canada Reads Along 2015: Ru

Cover image for Ru by Kim Thuy translated by Sheila Fischmanby Kim Thuy

Translated by Sheila Fischman

ISBN 978-1-60819-918-1

“But the young waiter reminded me that I couldn’t have everything, that I no longer had the right to declare I was Vietnamese because I no longer had their fragility, their uncertainty, their fears. And he was right to remind me.”

In 1979, Kim Thuy and her family fled Vietnam on a boat, landing in Malaysia, and eventually coming to Canada as refugees. They settled in Quebec, using a meagre government stipend to buy furniture and warm clothes. Kim Thuy embraced her new home and language, and grew up to become an entrepreneur, a world traveler, a mother, and, finally, a writer. In Ru, she fictionalizes her own life story, crafting the incidents and memories of the immigrant experience into a series of vignettes that are as much reminiscent of poetry as prose.

Ru is composed of a series of very short chapters loosely ordered and strung together. Nguyen An Tinh, the fictionalized protagonist, recounts her own childhood, but also jumps ahead, thinking about her children, particularly her autistic son. Flowing and loosely connected, the stories are striking if not particularly coherent. Kim Thuy sometimes uses mirroring language, starting the next story with the same phrase that concluded the last, or picks up on an idea that was only briefly touched on in the previous vignette. The structure is a form of free association, mimicking the wandering of the mind through the past, but always connecting back to the present. The narrative is extremely personal, and offers little exposition or historical context for the conflict that drives An Tinh and her family from their home.

The immigrant narrative Kim Thuy recounts feels candid despite being fictionalized, but not unusual. There is hardship in the journey, but also a lot of hope. It is Ru’s form that really draws attention to it. It is a liminal work that straddles the border between fiction and non-fiction, poetry and prose, novel and interconnected short stories. Kim Thuy’s language, as translated by Sheila Fischman, is clear and strikingly observant, even when the topic is a filthy pit toilet in a Malaysian refugee camp. The images are fleeting, but leave a powerful emotional impression.

Throughout the week of Canada Reads debates, Ru stood out as the most beautifully written book among the contenders, which included Intolerable by Kamal Al-Solaylee, The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King, And the Birds Rained Down by Jocelyne Saucier, and When Everything Feels like the Movies by Raziel Reid. The challenge this book had to overcome was the fleeting nature of its structure, and the difficulty of feeling a strong connection to the protagonist. Craig Kielburger argued early on that it wasn’t successful at achieving this year’s theme of breaking barriers because the challenges in Ru seemed to melt away in its quickly shifting structure, but by the end of the week he was strongly advocating for Ru’s ability to promote compassion. This change reflected a shift that seemed to have pulled all the other panelists along as well. Although Martha Wainwright made a powerful statement that she wanted to live in the kind of Canada that could read When Everything feels like the Movies without raising a hue and cry, she voted with the rest of the panelists—except for defender Elaine Lui—to eliminate When Everything Feels like the Movies in the final round of debates. Although a popular book and the winner of many awards, Ru was a surprise winner given Cameron Bailey’s quiet though articulate defense in light of the more passionate arguments of Elaine Lui and Martha Wainwright.

Congratulations to Cameron Bailey and Kim Thuy on Ru’s victory.

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You can watch the Canada Reads debates on the CBC website.