James Fitzgerald’s What Disturbs Our Blood
Random House, 2010

At first glance, James’ Fitzgerald’s might seem like a charmed life.

But What Disturbs Our Blood would not have come into being if that had been true.

It takes some digging (in the archives) and some prying (from the mouths of those who have built their lives on keeping the right kind of secrets), but what has been hidden is brought out.

The author began in search of answers to a set of questions, but his premise widened as he discovered truths that family and interested parties had concealed for many years.

He learned that “…the three-story house has three crowded generations of stories to tell, and mine is only one of them.’

But these were the stories of people who had been brought up to believe that weaknesses and errors were to be concealed, disregarded, revisioned.

“Generations on, I knew without being told what I must believe. The ‘Upper Canadians’ who occupied the neighbourhoods of Deer Park and Forest Hill crowning the Avenue Road hill were born and bred above it all, and the natives below were to be seen as beyond the pale, quite literally beneath us.”

Had he not had so many unanswered questions about his father, surrounding his many years of depressive and despairing behaviour in the family home, it’s unlikely that James Fitzgerald’s curiosity about his grandfather would have culminated in such a dramatic and thorough exploration of his family’s past.

Certainly others had set aside the subject.

He had never heard his grandmother mention his grandfather’s name, though he had been dead for fifteen years.

In fact, as a child, he had never heard his grandfather’s name spoken.

And, as an adult, when he went in search of him on the shelves of the medical library (alongside the bulky biographies of Osler, Banting, Bethune, and Penfield, where his grandfather’s biography should have resided), there was nothing to be found.

“It felt as if his memory, like the ravages of diphtheria or polio, had been virtually erased. Why? What was my father – and medical historians – protecting us from? Why were they so determined to stand between the generations like a pane of stained glass?”

What is worth obscuring for those families on the hill: that’s inescapable in this exploration. “The evidence was piling up fast: trouble in paradise.”

And what kind of evidence? Well, that would spoil the way that this volume folds inward upon itself, beginning as the story of one man in search of answers and ending as the story of three men, all in pursuit of similar things, as it turns out.

But below is an excerpt which reveals the ways in which those who appear outwardly to hold happiness in their grasp can be quietly tortured by unnamed sorrows and insecurities.

It’s a little long, but it also represents the tone of James Fitzgerald’s work, which is non-fiction, but which has a strong narrative drive nonetheless; those who prefer their histories and biographies heavy on the dates and details may be disappointed, whereas those who prefer the emphasis on psychological and social issues will be pleased.

And this sample contains no overt spoilers, for part of the pleasure of this volume lies in gradually gaining something-like-understanding. First, he sets the scene:

“Walking out of an exam room that spring, I bumped into Jane, an attractive blond cheerleader whom I had flirted with at parties. The Havergal-educated daughter of a war hero, she wore a ceaseless, perfect smile that matched her ceaseless, perfect cartwheels.”

Then, he inserts himself into it:

“I was girlfriendless, and Jane seemed the kind of iconic, tartan-skirted beauty my social class had programmed me to court and marry; at the time, I wasn’t averse to getting with the program. She flashed the smile and cheerfully invited me over for a beer that night.”

Finally, the cinch is drawn:

“I agreed, but my shyness intervened and I never showed up. Weeks later, Jane sealed herself in her parents’ garage in Toronto and asphyxiated herself with car exhaust. She thought no one liked her.”

This is an isolated incident in What Disturbs Our Blood (although obviously the story at the heart of another, unwritten book), though it undoubtedly resonated with James Fitzgerald for many reasons.

But this brief passage reveals the tenor of tragedy (and shame) that lurk at the margins of family histories, unspoken. If you find this kind of unanswered question of interest, you will likely find What Disturbs Our Blood a worthwhile read.

Note:This is the fourth of the five posts that focus on the titles nominated for the 2011 Toronto Book Award. The others have/will appear/ed on October 6, 8, 10,and 12,with something fun for the 13th,the date on which the prize is to be announced.

Toronto-ness in What Disturbs Our Blood: Forest Hill, Deer Park, the Avenue Road hill, 186 Balmoral Avenue, Grace Church on-the-Hill, Bishop Strachan, Upper Canada College, Davenport escarpment, Mount Pleasant Cemetery, 75 Dunvegan, Toronto Western Hospital, 150 College Street, Connaught Laboratories, 250 College Street, 999 Queen Street West

Companion Reads:
Ken Wiwa’s In the Shadow of a Saint (2000)
Timothy Findley’s The Piano Man’s Daughter (1995)
Robertson Davies’ The Cunning Man (1994)