Review: Emancipation Day by Wayne Grady

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*I received this copy from Random House Canada in exchange for an honest review.*

Title: Emancipation Day

Author: Wayne Grady

Publisher: Anchor Canada

Publication Date: paperback, November 2014

ISBN: 9780385677684

Emancipation Day

Synopsis from Goodreads:

With his curly black hair and his wicked grin, everyone swoons and thinks of Frank Sinatra when Navy musician Jackson Lewis takes the stage. It’s World War II, and while stationed in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Jack meets the well-heeled Vivian Clift, a local girl who has never stepped off the Rock and longs to see the world. They marry against Vivian’s family’s wishes–there’s something about Jack that they just don’t like–and as the war draws to a close, the couple travels to Windsor to meet Jack’s family.
     But when Vivian meets Jack’s mother and brother, everything she thought she knew about her husband gets called into question. They don’t live in the dream home Jack depicted, they all look different from one another–different from anyone Vivian has ever seen–and after weeks of waiting to meet Jack’s father, he never materializes.
     Steeped in jazz and big-band music, spanning pre- and post-war Windsor-Detroit, St. John’s, Newfoundland, and 1950s Toronto, this is an arresting, heart-wrenching novel about fathers and sons, love and sacrifice, race relations and a time in our history when the world was on the cusp of momentous change.

Emancipation Day explores race and identity in Canadian cities in the years pre and post-WWII. It’s so interesting to hear a family story that is so truly Canadian, but a story that addresses Canada’s racial history and the conflicts that arose at home, paralleled with the conflicts of the second World War. It exposes the animosity between races, where anyone of colour is limited, and having pale skin is advantageous. Race is a point of high tension and violent conflict. Intimate interracial relationships do occur, but they are secret and as one character explains, are not long term.

Jack secret is revealed early on, a black man born with skin so light that he is identified as a white man. His hatred for his family runs so deep at an early age. He is ashamed of them and of their station in life. He goes as far as running from home and claiming that he in an orphan and that the dark skinned man who calls himself his father, killed his “parents.” Jack discards his own name: “Jackson.” He tells half-truths about them to his own wife, letting her realize their skin colour on her own after years of marriage. Jack is a character who is filled with self-doubt, anger, and fear of who he really is.

I can’t say that I connected with any of the characters in Emancipation Day and that’s why I’ve given it 3 stars. I found Jack charming at first, but he quickly becomes sullen, withdrawn, isolated, and all around unlikable. His story is certainly hard to stomach sometimes, but it’s difficult to feeling any sympathy for him. I do feel some compassion to his wife Vivian, because she ends up marrying a man who she really doesn’t know, but she too falls flat. It was hard to really connect with her. It felt as though there was always some sort of barrier up between her and the reader. Vivian is a suffer in silence type of person who seemingly accepts the lot she is given in life. I wanted her to be stronger and braver, but she remains quiet and complacent.

We get to know Jack’s family a little more than Vivian’s as there are a few chapters from the perspective of Jack’s father. But William Henry’s chapters are really just discussions about his anger at his son, but his lack of willingness to do anything to reprimand the boy who rejects him and his family so fully. William Henry is a drunk, a slacker, and a theif. He does nothing to better his image in both his son and the reader’s eyes. He slots himself right into the negative image that surrounds anyone of colour in the story. William Henry, though, is the only character who I felt had some redeeming qualities. I could forgive many of his transgressions because he owns up to his short comings in the end. He recognizes that he rejected Jack in much the same way that Jack rejects him. He sees that he fail to punish his son for his blatant dismissal of his family. He makes a vow to right his wrongs. In my opinion, he’s the only character in which we see any kind of growth.

This book fell a bit short of my initial expectations, but it was still a very interesting read. Emancipation Day reveals a time and a place in Canada that is often forgotten about. Set in Windsor, it reveals a violence and hatred that occurred right here at home. As Jack puts it during the riots in Detroit, “we are at war.” They came from World War II into a war of the races. Grady addresses this conflict honestly and without reserve. He is not afraid to confront the struggle of self-identity–of not knowing who one is when one doesn’t fulling below to one race or another. Perhaps that’s why we can’t really connect with Jack, because he himself doesn’t fully know and understand who he is. He is inhibited by anger and lets no one, not even the reader, in. Emancipation Day is definitely worth the read, but I hope you’re reading experience is a little better than mine.

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