By Rosalie MacEachern
For The News
Twenty years ago, killing time in a library, writer Wayne Grady rifled through census data and discovered his self-proclaimed Irish father was actually a black man whose complexion was light enough to “pass” for white.
From that moment of revelation Grady began to write a novel about his father and mother, a Newfoundland girl from a well-to-do family. It took two decades and 22 drafts but “Emancipation Day” (Doubleday Canada, $24.95) is a haunting tale of shame, denial, racism and the intricacy of family relationships.
Told from the perspectives of three memorable characters, Vivian, the Newfoundland girl in search of a broader horizon, Jack, the charismatic but twisted and troubled son, and William Henry, Jack’s alcoholic father, provide the prism through which family history and prevailing attitudes toward race and social standing are revealed.
The novel opens in St. John’s, N.L., a port city abuzz with the activity of the Second World War. Jack, an unlikely sailor, is violently sick at sea but all shine and swagger when he takes to the stage with the Navy band, beating away on the drums or playing trombone. Vivian is passing round a plate of sandwiches when they meet and he tellingly nicknames her Lily White.
Vivian’s family cannot warm up to Jack but she marries him anyway. When the war ends they go to Windsor, Ont., to meet his family. It is soon clear that Vivian’s arrival comes as a surprise to the family. Vivian, for her part, is bewildered by Jack’s brother and mother who behave peculiarly and are relatively fair-skinned, sporting what Jack calls “Windsor tans.” A whole series of excuses are presented for why Jack’s father is always unavailable. Vivian is pregnant by the time she does meet him and is confronted with the evasive Jack’s secret.
While Jack’s character is intriguing, the reader never comes to a deep understanding of him. He is driven by the overwhelming desire to be white and the relentless fear he will be exposed as a black man.
“Jackson didn’t just want to be white, he thought he was white. How he explained that to himself or his new bride, William Henry didn’t know. Maybe he didn’t explain, maybe he just brassed it out. Weren’t many other ways he could do it,” Grady writes.
It is tragic to see how much of himself Jack denies while others, including family and friends, have come to their own conclusions about him. Particularly searing is the ending of the story when Jack puts his mark on his young son.
Vivian’s character is also underdeveloped but perhaps deliberately so. She is painfully innocent but eventually comes to an instinctive understanding that she cannot go back to Newfoundland. When her child is born it appears she makes a bargain to stay with Jack in Windsor but Grady stops telling us much of anything about her.
What Grady does very successfully is present the pre- and post-war big band and jazz era of the 1930s and 1940s along with the racial tensions that percolated in Detroit and Windsor during that time. In fairness, though he was raised in the story, there is a great deal he cannot possibly know given the accidental nature of his self-discovery. “Emancipation Day” may not answer all your questions but it certainly gives you much to think about.