The reader of Wayne Grady’s first novel is held in as careful an embrace as the woman in the dancing couple on Emancipation Day‘s cover.

Doubleday Canada - Random House Canada 2013

Doubleday Canada – Random House Canada 2013

There is a sense that each word of the story has been chosen deliberately, even without a reader’s knowing that the author took about twenty years to write the novel.

The prose has that fresh-washed feel, nothing extraneous.

“There was always something new to listen or read about. These days it was the war. The many coloureds who were migrating north to work in the Detroit armament factories. The many whites who were moving out of downtown Detroit for that very reason.”

And, yet, it does not squeak with an artificial polish. Sometimes a preposition dangles. Other times, dialogue is fragmented.

The use of language is both calculated and natural. And the facts relayed are rooted in character and setting.

The reader learns that it is wartime from the perspective of a barber in Windsor, Ontario. The shop was off the lobby of the British-American hotel, at the corner Sandwich Street East and Ouellette.

“The war was none of his of Harlan’s concern, except that it did affect business. Folks had worn their hair long during the Depression, Harlan said, almost over their collars, but now that the war was on they seemed to prefer a more military cut, even the civilians, and not just the coloureds. Everyone wanted to look like they just been called up, or would be any day now, or else just got back and wanted everyone to know it.”

This is William Henry Lewis, of W.H. Lewis & Sons, Ltd, Plasterers speaking in the novel’s first chapter. He experiences the Second World War on the homefront, and it’s notable that he feels no connection to the war beyond its impact on his brother’s barbering business.

Eleven pages later, the reader is introduced to William Henry’s son, Jack, whose voice is distinctly different from his father’s. (William Henry calls him Jackson.)

Ouellette Avenue and Sandwich Street, with the British American Hotel (the barbershop inside) on the left-hand side of the photograph

The British American Hotel (left) 30 years before the novel opens, when Andrew Jackson Lewis owned the barbershop off the lobby inside, not his son

Partly because he has just received orders which require haste, and partly because of his youthful energy, Jack’s narrative is firmly based in the present, vibrant and sonorous.

William Henry would rather discuss his older son, Benny, but the narrative focuses on Jack, on assignment in St. John’s Newfoundland, and the young woman he meets there, Vivian. These three voices are the heart of the novel.

“Mary Parsons was right, he looked so much like Frank Sinatra it took your breath away,” she observes.

Well, perhaps not the reader’s breath, not exactly, for the reader is engaged in Jack’s story but has not yet assembled an understanding of him, but the reader has no doubt that Vivian is smitten with the young trombonist in the Navy Band.

And there is a sensory element to the prose which does tug at the reader’s immersion in the story. When Jack and Vivian meet for lunch at the  restaurant on Water Street in St John’s, the atmosphere is vividly sketched. And, once more, using metaphors which reflect the characters’ experience of the world around them.

“There was the rattle of cutlery on thick china and a drone of people talking, like the low sound of airplanes flying overhead. He fed her through a pall of tobacco smoke to a booth at the back, almost at the kitchen door.”

And when Jack is at sea, his seasickness engages the reader’s senses as well. “Chipped beef came out looking like a chocolate milkshake. Creamed corn cut a lovely golden arc through the fog.”

Jack’s nausea is discomfiting for the reader, but far more upsetting is the violence rooted in racism which he experiences on board the ship he serves on.

The type of prejudice he endures there is conspicuously absent when Jack recalls his everyday life in Windsor, however. The prejudice endured in Windsor is of a different sort, for Jackson has constructed a life rooted in “passing”.

“That baby stayed resolutely white. If anything it got whiter. Now Jackson was almost eighteen and he was still white as a Klansman’s bedsheet.”

One after another, Jackson jumps hurdles in his deliberate construction of an identity separate from his father and other darker-skinned family members, seeking out ever-more challenging ways of proving that he can “pass”, even joining a seemingly all-white band. (He does achieve his ultimate goal, but revealing its dimensions would involve a dramatic spoiler.)

The British North American Hotel in 1969, 14 years after the events of the novel have unfolded

The British North American Hotel in 1969, 14 years after the events of the novel have unfolded

“[T]here were no coloureds in the band, not exactly by design or decree, it just turned out that way, as everything always did in Windsor.”

In fact, the challenge he perceives in meeting Vivian’s family in Newfoundland is not that they are white, not that they will recognize him as being a visible member of another race, but that they are a family of means, which he observes on first seeing their home. His eye is that of a plasterer, of course; status resides in mouldings and rosettes.

“High ceilings, you’d need scaffolding to plaster them. Good work, though, some fancy cover mouldings at the corners and a rosette in the centre, all handmade of course.”

(One of my favourite passages in the novel circles around Viv’s sister, Iris, and her perspective on Jack. “She referred to him as though he were a temporary unpleasantness, like a blocked drain.”)

Once Vivian and Jack return to Windsor, however, the situation grows more complicated. As does the reader’s involvement, for by that time, the reader hears some of what Vivian cannot hear, and the connection to all three narrators strengthens.

“Then he shrugged, as though a second conversation was going on in his head, one she couldn’t be part of.”

The reader knows about these second conversations. The reader knows about the late-night trips across the border to listen to the jazzbands,  the complex relationships with Pete Barnes and the Barnes family, the ins-and-outs of negotiating business deals for plaster jobs, the Detroit Riots, and the Emancipation Day celebrations.

But, from the moment that Vivian arrives in Windsor, she knows less than the reader; tensions take hold.

“Windsor was so much duller than the other cities they had seen, duller even than Sydney, not at all the balmy metropolis Jack had described to her. A physical pang hung over everything, the station, the streets, the river, even the people, all of whom seemed to have come down to the station to meet someone they didn’t like.”

And this physical pang is experienced in the context of an overall-unsettling feeling that life in Windsor is something “other”.

“Coloured people in Windsor behaved more like they belonged to the place. And here the waterfront was a river. Rivers were unfriendly, she thought. She was used to water coming towards her like a greeting; here it swept past as though it hadn’t noticed her at all, dismissing her the way Jack did.”

These “coloured people” that Vivian observes, however, do not include the family members from whom Jack has worked to distance himself. And the difficulties in her marriage to Jack do not revolve around (at least not to Vivian’s knowledge, nor in any way that Jack would admit) race.

She looks for answers on the pages of the books she reads (which include the 1944 novels Thomas Raddall’s Roger Sudden  and Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge) but backs away as quickly as she moves ahead. This, too, is a reflection of the times.

“Some of the books ended happily, and she read those carefully for clues, but the ones that looked like they were going to end sadly she put down halfway through, even though they seemed more realistic to her. Sometimes the men changed, but more often it was the women. The war had already altered the men. It was as though people were capable of handling only one big event in their lives, and for the men it was the war. For women it was marriage.”

The time and place in Emancipation Day are constructed with a delicately maintained balance between ease and detail. Passages like the one about Viv’s reading above reveal underlying social constructs of the time, and select details build upon these fundamental tenets.

From the music of Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and Guy Lombardo, to the Ambassador Bridge, the Hotel-Dieu Hospital, Hiram Walker’s, and Riverside Park (in Windsor), to Union Station and the Royal York Hotel (in Toronto), Wayne Grady creates a recognizable and vivid world.

It is a world in which details and definitions are both of negligible and paramount importance; it is the reader’s world.

“Doesn’t it make some kind of sense that after four hundred years of living on the same continent, in the same cities, in the same neighbourhoods, that no matter who our parents are, we’re all having children that are neither one thing nor the other? Or both one thing and the other?”

Emancipation Day is consistently engaging and, quite simply, a most satisfying story. And the best kind: one with just enough truth in it.

[Note: There is a spoiler attached to both the events which led to the writing of this novel, and to the tone of the ending; the former is discussed in this podcast, which contains part of this essay, and also in this article, and I expect to discuss the latter in the comments below, but I will mark those comments with spoiler alerts.]