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Ontario writer Wayne Grady's novel explores race, deception

Kingston writer Wayne Grady grew up in a white working class family in Windsor, Ontario. Years later, while researching his family's history, Grady discovered that his father had grown up as the youngest son of a black working class family in Windsor. Grady's novel, "Emancipation Day," imagines his father's secrets and deceptions on his journey from black to white.

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Betsy Kepes
Book Reviewer

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Three voices tell the story in this richly detailed novel about race and identity in World War II-era Canada. Chapters alternate between the thoughts of William Henry Lewis, a black tradesman in Windsor, Vivian Lewis, a young white woman from a well-to-do Newfoundland family, and her husband Jack Lewis, a man who has decided to be white.

Young Jack Lewis plays the trombone in Canada's navy band. While stationed in Newfoundland Jack meets Vivian, a local girl who thinks Jack looks like Frank Sinatra in a sailor suit. Soon the two are married, though no one in Jack's family comes to the wedding. They live so far away, Vivian tells herself, all the way down in Ontario. No wonder they couldn't come.

But back in Windsor, Jack's family knows nothing about Vivian. Jack's father, William Henry, is a black man who has never understood his son, a boy who looks and acts white. Grady writes, "William Henry never had nothing but trouble from white people, and now here he was with a white son."

When Vivian finally travels with Jack to Windsor to see his family, Jack introduces her to his light-skinned mother and brother and makes up lies about why she can't see his father and sister. The newlyweds settle in Toronto where, Grady writes, "Nobody knew who Jack was, and nobody cared, which was Jack's idea of paradise."

But the stress of hiding so much from Vivian and his friends makes Jack a surly, suspicious man. When his father lies injured in a hospital in Windsor Vivian insists they go to look after him. Finally, when Vivian sees all of Jack's relatives in one room she realizes what she has refused to recognize, the color of his family.

"Emancipation Day" begins and ends with the birth of a baby. The first birth, in 1925, shocks the Lewis family. Josie doesn't want to let her husband see his new son so he fears the baby is deformed. When she pulls the blanket away from the new baby, Grady writes, "William Henry saw immediately what was wrong. He saw the baby's pink cheek working to release the milk from Josie's dark breast. The baby's pink fingers, tightly closed with the effort of kneading Josie's stomach. Its little pink legs gently kicking. 'This here's a white baby,' he said, horror-struck… "It ain't mine."      

At the end of the book Vivian learns she is pregnant with her first child. When she tells her husband Jack, the pink-cheeked son who so horrified his dark-skinned father, Jack says, "If that baby comes out coloured, I'll know it isn't mine!"

Only one character in "Emancipation Day" thinks that color doesn't matter: Della, the white wife of a doctor, a woman who secretly loves a black jazz musician. She says, "Jack, can't you see that it doesn't matter whether your baby is born white or coloured? That it doesn't matter anymore?"

But Jack lives in a world where color means everything: where you can live, where you can work and who you can marry. Wayne Grady's absorbing and disturbing novel takes the reader to a time when the color line was fixed and the only way to cross it was to leave behind family and friends and never look back.

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