This book was recommended to me by Don at Uncle Bardie’s Stories & Such. And I am very grateful. A few years ago, I read Trevor’s Love and Summer, which I thought was good but not quite enough to send me running to read more of his books.
The writing in this novella had me feeling like I was right there in 1950s rural Ireland, watching Harry watch the mysterious emigrant couple move into town, burning with curiosity. The woman takes a liking to Harry and asks him to carry out some simple tasks for her. The tasks slowly turn into lengthier visits with her at her home, and her husband also begins to take him under his wing. Harry enjoys spending time with them, but everyone wants him to spill the beans about the new-comers. Harry’s reserved nature serves him well. Now a 58-year-old man, he wistfully looks back on this time in his childhood, and tells us the story of Herr Messinger and his wife.
What I enjoyed most about the book was the description of Harry’s family life. His family sitting around the table, discussing the newcomers, trying to figure out who they were and where they came from. His father never wanting to be wrong, his mother correcting his brothers’ manners, his sister feeling resentful of her dull job at the timber yard, and his two grandmothers sitting there silently (they had not “addressed one another” since his parents’ wedding day!).
Best line: My mother’s tongue became sharp in anger: having suffered pain and inconvenience bringing four children into the world she demanded sensibleness in return.
Eleven-year-old Brian loves to play in the woods behind his house. But one day he doesn’t come home. His father, Jeff, calls in Search and Rescue, and while they wait, his neighbour reminds him of the time he got ‘lost’ in the woods when he was about the same age as Brian. Except Jeff has no memory of it. What is it that draws them into the forest? And will Brian eventually come out like his father before him, or will he be lost to the forest forever?
“It’s not how far you go… It’s how you look. All of this, these trees, these flowers, this place, it’s all here. It’s all right here. All forests are one forest, if you know how to look at them.”
This novella gave me goosebumps. It was the perfect one-sitting read for a snowy night by the fire.
Recommended to me by Buried in Print.
Less than a month after launching the Dutch edition of his novel, The Book of Negroes, Lawrence Hill received a letter from the Netherlands informing him that the “descendants of enslaved in the former Dutch colony Suriname” do not accept the title of his book and are going to burn it. In Dear Sir, I Intend to Burn Your Book, Lawrence Hill talks about his views on different perspectives, book burning, book banning, and racial terminology.
In the Introduction to this book, Ted Bishop gives us some background about Lawrence Hill and his work: at the time this book was published (2011), The Book of Negroes had sold more than 600,000 copies in Canada alone, “where sales of 5,000 constitute a bestseller”. He describes his work as something that “takes us into the complexity of race, with humour, sensitivity, and love. It doesn’t lecture; it dramatizes, immersing us into the situations of his characters, revealing to us our often-unexamined assumptions”.
It’s no wonder, then, that receiving this letter “deeply troubled” him – that a work to which he had “given five years of passion and attention and integrity should attract such a hateful act”. Hill goes on to explain, through anecdotes about his own family, why he and the people behind the letter “should have been on the same side of the issues”.
I don’t agree with those who burned my book. But I empathize with them. And that, and the troubling relationship we have with books that offend us deeply, is what I want to talk about.
On burning books…
There is something particularly odious about burning a book, or a pile of books. The action aims not just to remove the offending article from the hands of readers, but to silence and intimidate writers, publishers and booksellers. It suggests that they too will be burned if they do not heed the message. The act seems to say: “You will not be tolerated. Your ideas will not be discussed. We must protect society from your toxic mind, and so we are lighting this bonfire.”
On banning books…
We can hate them, dissect them, learn from them or praise them, but we need to leave books alone and let readers come to terms with them. We can teach young people to be aware and to be critical thinkers. But to believe that we can protect young people from the ideas in literature is self-delusional, in the extreme.
On violence and abuse in books….
Apparently, Palestinian and Israeli children are old enough to live through hell, but children in Canada are not old enough to read about it.
The purpose of literature…
The very purpose of literature is to enlighten, disturb, awaken and provoke. Literature should get us talking – even when we disagree. Literature should bring us into the same room – not over matches , but over coffee and conversation. It should inspire recognition of our mutual humanity. Together.
I came across this book after reading Lawrence Hill‘s Black Berry, Sweet Juice, a book that is part memoir and partly an exploration of racial identity in Canada, and one I highly recommend (review to come). I’m also a huge fan of The Book of Negroes, and while I knew about the controversy over its title, I wasn’t aware that it had been the subject of a book burning.