The Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award is one of the most lucrative in Canada. For more information about it and the writer it’s named for, visit my Thomas Raddall page.
Two of the nominated books for this award are set in contemporary Halifax, and one in an isolated nineteenth century Newfoundland cove.
Crocuses Hatch From Snow by Jaime Burnet, Nimbus Publishing
Haligonians will love seeing their city through the multiple lenses of the characters in this book.
The excavator’s head hovers over the remaining half of a large blue house as if it doesn’t know what to do, or doesn’t want to do it. But the man pulls its reins and the machine complies, sinking its thick teeth into one hundred years of brittle history.
Ada walks the streets of Halifax between her house in the North End to work, from her favourite coffee shop to the parlour where she gets her love interest – Pan – to pierce her in every conceivable place. And by “love interest” I mean obsession. Ada cannot get Pan out of her head. (“It’s a tendency she’s always had–forming crushes on remarkable strangers.“) Unless she’s thinking about her grandmother Mattie and Mattie’s “ghost lover”, who Ada can hear through the thin walls of her bedroom.
Mattie’s story goes back to her school days in Shubenacadie where she meets Edith, a student from the Residential school. Mattie and Edith are drawn to each other, but their friendship gets cut short when Mattie is forced to marry ‘the boy next door’.
Ada’s neightbours are an African Nova Scotian family who are worried about being forced out of their house due to rising rents, echoing the razing of Africville in the late 1960s. They are also grieving the loss of their wife and mother, a hard-working activist in the community. (“It’s been a year since Leona died, and Ken still can’t bring himself to change their bed sheets.”)
The north end of the city has “culture” and “soul,” young non-Black agents tell their non-Black clients, which is a code meaning that there are enough Black people around to make you feel cool and worldly without ever having to talk to any of them.
Through the weaving of these characters and their stories, Burnet lays out the issues of our past and our present — racism, gentrification, LGBTQ+ rights, Residential schools, privilege, and generational trauma — as they relate specifically to Halifax, as well as around the world.
After the first time she saw her, Ada wondered what kind of brown Pan was. She knew it wasn’t really right to ask that, and possibly not right to even think it. She was pretty sure the proper thing was to pretend she had never noticed Pan was brown at all. She tried a few lines out loud to herself to see how they sounded: “Where are you from, originally?” “What are you? Like, what’s your background?” “What’s your background? I mean your ethnic background?” She was pretty sure that “ethnic” was the appropriate word. Or was it?
Crocuses Hatch From Snow is Jaime Burnet’s debut novel. Will she take the prize with her first book?
The Waiting Hours by Shandi Mitchell, Viking Canada
The Waiting Hours is set in both Halifax and Dartmouth, including on the bridge in between. And it has an attention-grabbing first paragraph.
It was hot the day Ruth is said to have died. The kind of hot that makes babies cry, dogs lie belly up, and underwear cling to scrotums and breasts.
The Waiting Hours asks the question: “When you spend your life saving others… who will be there to save you?”
Readers follow the stories of three first responders: Kate, a nurse who has been estranged from her family, finds herself back at her childhood home trying to patch things together while her mother is in hospital and her brother is too ill too take care of himself.
They told terrible stories of horrific deaths, devastating maimings, and grotesque indignities involving body parts and orifices, which made them laugh until their eyes teared and their stomach hurt from spasms. Laughter was the most defiant and life-affirming thing they could think to do when they couldn’t do anything else.
Mike, a police officer with a wife and two young children, is on the verge of burning out and losing his family in one fell swoop.
He couldn’t tell her about the boy he knew was dead before he reached for a pulse. Or how he made a rookie mistake and looked him in the eyes breaking the first rule to never look them in the eyes. / He couldn’t tell her about the meat smell of warm blood. Or the strength of a fourteen-year-old boy who doesn’t want to let go. He considered telling her how the boy curled into him, burying his face against his chest, but then he would have to tell her about the sound that tore from the kid’s throat.
Tamara, a 911 dispatcher with crippling anxiety who tries not to get emotionally involved, gets a call one night that makes it impossible for her to stay detached.
She wasn’t supposed to imagine the scene. She was supposed to keep the phone between her and the calls. Stay detached and unaffected. She had been extensively trained to remain objective, uninvolved, and efficient. She excelled at multi-tasking, crisis management, problem solving, communication, and risk assessment.
There are a host of secondary characters, but two stood out to me especially. Hassan, an immigrant who lives alone and loves to read; he makes himself available to drive Tamara and knows the routes she likes to take.
He knew a funeral wasn’t a first date, but he had prepared as though it were. He trimmed his nose hairs, shaved his cheeks smooth. Applied cologne and washed it off. Bought new underwear and socks. Clipped his finger- and toenails. He even tidied his one-bedroom apartment and changed the sheets. When he pulled out the fridge to sweep behind it, he realized how ridiculous and humiliating hope could be.
And Caleb, Mike’s four-year-old son; he watches his father and picks up on the little things we think kids don’t notice.
The bad guy hit Daddy, Daddy hit the bad guy. Caleb’s not supposed to hit baby Connor, not even a little. Not even when he takes his cars and sticks them in his mouth. But Mommy didn’t yell at Daddy, or the bad guy, when they were hitting.
He should call Mommy. She would make the bed good again and tell him it’s okay he was still little. But through the walls and under the door he could hear Mommy and Daddy growling. He opened his mouth wide, baring all his teeth, and Snappy chomped down on the bad guys.
While the focus of this story is on first responders–the demands and impacts of their jobs–there is also a broader look at socioeconomic segregation, discrimination, and mental illness in the communities and characters of the novel. It felt like a very timely read.
Ada and Ken from Crocuses Hatch From Snow (above) live in North End Halifax where Ken is worried about the gentrification of the area. Tamara grew up there with her Granny Nan.
This part of the city was choked with two hundred years of red and purple dots. Now it was covered with the more common yellow, orange, and black marks of drugs, addiction, and mental illness. And reds… there were still so many reds. Salvation Street. Hope Street. Save yourself Street. Step inside to bad coffee, good intentions, praying hands, caring hearts, and not enough money.
Some favourite lines…
Taking a call was like reading the first chapter of a book and then having it snatched away.
Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, opus 15, was trilling from the record player, dashing through the living room, around the kitchen, ducking in and out of bedrooms.
Don’t worry about the eyes with tears, his mama used to say. Worry about the eyes without.
Shandi Mitchell’s Under This Unbroken Sky was the Raddall winner in 2010. Will she do it again?
The Innocents by Michael Crummey, DoubleDay Canada
Moving from the social issues of contemporary Nova Scotia to the survival matters of an isolated nineteenth century Newfoundland cove.
Ada and Evered – aged nine and eleven – are on their own. One terrible winter they lose their parents and their baby sister, and they decide to stay put and fend for themselves. Part of what this entails is continuing to catch and dry enough fish to pay their debts when The Hope comes to collect. The Hope and the midwife from across the water are all they know about the world beyond their cove – everything else they need to figure out on their own.
They were left together in the cove then with its dirt-floored stud tilt, with its garden of root vegetables and its scatter of outbuildings, with its looming circle of hills and rattling brook and its view of the ocean’s grey expanse beyond the harbour skerries. The cove was the heart and sum of all creation in their eyes and they were alone there with the little knowledge of the world passed on haphazard and gleaned by chance.
The siblings spend their days fishing and hunting, eating and sleeping. As the seasons turn. In the winter, they spend a lot of time in their beds. (But somehow Crummey is still able to keep me glued to the page.)
And years passed in that same severe round with little variation but the ratcheting wheel of the seasons and nothing but the slow pendulum of The Hope’s appearance to mark time on a human scale.
There are just enough ‘adventures’ to keep the reader’s interest; a storm, a trek out to a ship trapped in the ice, a visit from a crew of sailors, and a mid-winter hunting trip.
At the heart of the story is the fact that the siblings are growing and changing. They begin to have thoughts and feelings that they don’t know what to do with, and have had no instruction or guidance. When I heard Michael Crummey speak about his book (back when we still used to do things like that), he said that what he wanted to do was write about the subject in such a way as to elicit compassion and understanding from the reader, about a subject that would normally repel and disgust us. In my opinion, he succeeds brilliantly.
They had all their lives been the one thing the other looked to first and last, the one article needed to feel complete whatever else was taken from them or mislaid in the dark. But each in their own way was beginning to doubt their pairing was requisite to what they might want from life.
Some favourite lines…
Pleasure and shame. Shame and pleasure. These were the world’s currencies. And it paid out both in equal measure.
Nothing below the ocean’s surface lay still for long and nothing upon it was much above a shadow.
The death of a horse is the life of a crow and a story was a rank scavenger from all he could tell, feeding on rumour and innuendo and naked confabulation where the truth was too nimble to chase down or too tough to chew. And making no distinction between one meal and the other.
It was confounding to see magic and beauty and mystery leach out of a thing, to think it could be used up like a store of winter supplies. / She watched Evered finish the last of his meal, wondering if the same might be true of a person, of how two people felt about each other.
Before I end this… I wrote before about how much I love the language Crummey uses in The Innocents. Here’s what I said:
Crummey also spoke of his use of a book called Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (Francis Grose, 1785), where he found some whopping insults that fit nicely into his book. The excerpt he read that night is a good example of some of the colourful language he uses in his book.
In this excerpt, Sarah Best is making jam and her husband Sennet is trying to swipe some of it before it’s done.
Their father stole the spoon away and their mother smacked him across the ear with the flat of her hand.
“You lousy hedge whore,” he shouted, grabbing at her shoulders.
“Muck-spout,” she said through her teeth. “Filthy beard splitter.”
They wrestled nearly to exhaustion before he managed to corral her arms, cuffing her wrists together in one hand to give himself unfettered access to the cooling jam. He scooped a ladleful in his bare fingers and held their mother still a long moment then, trying to catch his breath, watching her as the thickened juice dripped from his hand.
“Don’t you,” Sarah Best said, weak with laughter, almost too winded to speak.
“You dirty shag-bag,” she said, yanking with both arms, using the last of her strength to try to pull clear.
“My bob tail,” their father said, reefing her closer.
“Sennet Best,” she said, “you buck fitch.”
And he brought the dripping hand to her face then, smearing the jam across her cheeks and her mouth and her squinted eyes as she squirmed in his grip and laughed and cursed him all she was worth.
What is a muck-spout, anyway? According to Mental Floss, it’s “a dialect word for someone who not only talks a lot, but who seems to constantly swear.” And a beard splitter?… “a British slang used for ‘ a man much given to wenching.’’ (The Vintage News)
The Innocents was also nominated for the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize, The Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction. Will he come out ahead this time?
The Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award is part of the Atlantic Book Awards.