by Catherine Hernandez
“He opens his arms and asks if I would like a hug. I walk to him. I’m so scared. But then he holds me. He smells like food. He smells like flowers. And smiles. And sorrys. And If Onlys. I Never Meant Tos. I’m Different Nows. I’ve Learned So Muches. I’m Not the Sames. I’ve never been hugged like that before, and that hug feels so good, so I hug him back. It feels so good to hug someone who will never hit you.”
When Miss Hina takes a position working for a government literacy program in Scarborough, east of Toronto, she finds herself embedded in a community full of people struggling to get by. Cory has just taken in his seven-year-old daughter Laura after his ex-wife abandoned her at a bowling alley. Marie is beginning to suspect that her young son Johnny may have a disability, but much of her time an energy is preoccupied by the fact that they’re currently living in a shelter with no prospect for stable housing. Edna sees that her young son Bing is queer, and loves him unconditionally, but has to figure out the best ways to support him in a community where his differences will not be appreciated. Fighting against a system that has specific ideas about what services she should be providing to the community without reference to what its people actually needs, Miss Hina sets out to make a small difference in the lives of these children and their families.
Set in 2011, Scarborough follows the cycle of a school year as Miss Hina begins her work in the Ontario Reads Literacy Program at the Rouge Hill Public School. Catherine Hernandez employs shifting perspectives in first and third person narration that reveal the poverty and racial tensions that simmer through the neighbourhood. Marie’s family is homeless, living in a local shelter while she also tries desperately to access the services to get her son assessed for developmental disabilities. Cory relies on some of the resources Miss Hina can provide, but he mistrusts her hijab and the colour of her skin. He does not want her touching his daughter, and his past as neo-Nazi is ever-present in the background. Every family is facing its own challenges and fighting an faceless, inhumane system that does not see them as people.
In addition to first and third person narrative, Hernandez also employs attendance reports filed by Miss Hina, and emails between her and her distant supervisor, who is unfamiliar with the situation in Scarborough. Miss Hina faces pressure to ensure families aren’t treating the snacks she provides as a free breakfast program, even though lack of access to dependable meals is a major learning barrier for the children in her community. A larger story of systemic failure plays out through these interactions, highlighting the precarious funding of the literacy program at the whims of the sitting government, and the particular agendas of the administrators who control the program budget. All this takes place as a backdrop to the day-to-day struggles of the characters who are simply looking for their next meal or more stable housing.
The stories in Scarborough are interconnected and overlap, sometimes in unexpected ways, and from multiple directions. The neighbourhood is at once large, and so very small. Michelle, the shelter worker, sees two men arguing in the street when she steps out for her smoke break. When we get to Clive’s chapter, we experience this encounter firsthand, and realize that the drunk man is Cory, stumbling through the nearly deserted streets, trying to figure out how he will provide Christmas dinner for his daughter. Things have a way of looping back on one another in a multiplicity of perspectives that add up to form the story of a community that is larger than the sum of its parts.
Scarborough was defended on Canada Reads 2022 by actor and activist Malia Baker, who at fifteen is also Canada Reads’ youngest ever panelist. Baker is from Vancouver, and in her opening statement she highlighted the fact that Scarborough is such a microcosm of Canada as a whole that it spoke to her despite the fact that she had no personal connection to the setting. She also argued that the book’s depiction of community and multiplicity of perspectives is what made it the One Book to Connect Us, which is the Canada Reads 2022 theme. Throughout the week of debates, Baker more than held her own against the much older panelists, successfully championing Scarborough to the finale against Five Little Indians by Michelle Good, which was defended by fashion writer Christian Allaire.
Throughout the week of debates, Christian Allaire was also the only panelist consistently casting his vote against Scarborough, perhaps sensing that thematically and structurally it was his closest competition. Before the finale, no other panelist had cast a vote against it, though that doesn’t mean that it did not come in for criticism. Christian Alliare repeatedly called out the fact that he wanted more from the character of Sylvie, particularly since her family constitutes Scarborough’s Indigenous representation. Indeed, the development of character came up from many of the panelists over the course of the week. Because of the structure of the book and the large cast of characters, we do not spend much time in any one point of view. Many of the characters are barely more than a glimpse, flitting in and out of the story before we get a chance to really know them. However, some of these snapshots are highly effective, and many of the panelists called out the character of Cory who is memorably human while also being thoroughly despicable in his racism.
During the final day of the debates, host Ali Hassan raised questions about how the two remaining books took readers inside the hearts and minds of the characters, revealed our shared humanity, and changed how the panelists moved through the world. The conversation moved quickly, and all too soon it was time for the final round of ballots to be cast. Unanimous votes are rare on Canada Reads in any circumstance, but this may be the first time since I began following the program that such a unified vote took place during the finale. Defender Malia Baker voted against Five Little Indians (only one panelist has ever voted against their own book). However, all four of the other panelists unanimously voted to eliminate Scarborough, making Five Little Indians the winner of Canada Reads 2022.
Thanks for joining me for Canada Reads Along 2022! Need to catch up? Start here with Life in the City of Dirty Water by Clayton Thomas-Müller. Check back tomorrow for my review of the winning book!
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