April 15-21, 2023 is Canada Book Week, a yearly event which celebrates reading and literacy in Canada. Given that our country is so vast, diverse and complicated, it is encouraging to know that many current Canadian books echo that. Here are a couple of my recent favourites.
Stealing Home written by J. Torres and illustrated by David Namisato
While technically a children’s graphic novel, Stealing Home certainly appeals to adults as well. It tells the story of a boy named Sandy living in Vancouver at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Sandy’s family originates from Japan and so their lives are forever changed by the events of that day.
They are forced to move to internment camps in the interior of British Columbia. Sandy’s father, a doctor, is initially taken to a work camp for men, while Sandy is sent to a different camp with his little brother and mother. J. Torres does an incredible job of depicting the emotional impact of racism and trauma on both children and adults in this moving piece of historical fiction. David Namisato’s detailed illustrations are also very poignant. The images are presented in sepia tones, which offers the fitting effect of looking back at old photographs.
The theme of baseball runs throughout the story as Sandy is a huge baseball fan, and his heroes are the Vancouver Asahi. This team of Japanese Canadians was celebrated for playing “brain ball,” meaning they focused on strategy and team work to overcome their larger and stronger opponents. Sandy and his family use the same game plan to fight the prejudice they face daily. Stealing Home is a heavy tale, but it is a graphic novel that both my baseball-loving 12-year-old son and I found riveting.
The Sleeping Car Porter by Suzette Mayr
The Sleeping Car Porter was awarded the Scotiabank Giller Prize back in November, and it may be the perfect book to read during Canada Book Week. It transports you on a trip across the country as well as back in time to a fascinating period in Canadian history. The main character, R.T. Baxter, is working as a train porter in the late 1920s and journeying from Montreal to Vancouver over four nights and three days.
Baxter’s job is to be at the ready 24/7, attending to every whim of the travellers in his car. Mayr’s writing is immersive in its detail allowing the reader to really feel the exhaustion that sets in for Baxter. He is only permitted the odd “nap the size of a poppy seed;” anything more and he could lose his job. Porters suffer from demerit points and the stress of acquiring them is palpable. Baxter needs this job and his earnings as he aspires to go to dental college at McGill University.
Baxter sometimes wishes he could apply the theories of dentistry to his job as a porter, reasoning that when teeth bother you, you can just extract them! Of course, he can’t do that with the people on his train and he must find ways to manage whatever characters come his way, be it a séance holding medium, a bickering mother and her newly engaged daughter, or a famous actor constantly trying to hide to avoid recognition.
The prejudiced ways of the era require Baxter to assist these patrons, while attempting to remain somewhat invisible at the same time. Thus, when he and the other porters are referred to as “George” time and time again despite that not being their real names, all they can do is ignore it. It is not only Baxter’s skin colour that forces him to minimize his true self but also the fact that he is gay. At one point, he finds a homoerotic postcard on board and the decision of what to do with it adds to his long list of fears and anxieties.
Mayr’s writing in The Sleeping Car Porter is so visceral that by the end of the book you may find yourself still feeling the repetitive rocking of the train. Like Baxter, you might also feel ready after a day or two of rest for another ride.
If so, my other recent Canadian favourites include Sarah Polley’s book of essays, Run Towards the Danger: Confrontations with a Body of Memory and Kate Beaton’s masterful graphic novel, Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands, which just won the latest edition of CBC Canada Reads. (See previous Check It Out blog posts here and here for more information about both of these titles.)