A gritty contemporary story: a woman and her 8-year old son flee cartel violence in Acapulco with the goal of a new life in the USA. What follows is a perilous journey with some heart-breaking violence, theft and sexual assault, tempered by some extraordinary acts of kindness and compassion. This book has been controversial because of criticisms of cultural appropriation and stereotypical presentations of the largely Mexican characters. My limited frame of reference does not permit me to judge this issue. In my opinion, Ms. Cummins has a voice that deserves to be heard; others can judge the truthfulness and veracity of her story.
It is the 1960s: Ana is 15 years old and newly married when she moves to New York City with her much older controlling husband. The NY context is the Washington Heights neighbourhood which is colourful and multi-cultural. Ana speaks no English and has no documents so she has a tough life. The 1960s setting in NY is one of the strengths of this story. Thanks Amy, for this recommendation.
A Canada Reads (now postponed) contender: This is a very well-written and powerful memoir about identity and belonging, but more specifically about the cost of hiding your identity, initially as a member of a minority and persecuted Ahmadi Muslim sect in Pakistan. Then as a new immigrant in Canada, she is subject to racism and bullying. Finally, there is also the poignant issue of her being a queer Muslim, yet another secret identity. Highly recommended.
Although I generally do not read much historical fiction (Washington Black is an obvious exception to this statement), Ms. Endicott is just an excellent storyteller. The book has two parts. The first is an around-the-world journey by a sailing ship in 1911-12. Two disparate sisters are on this long sea journey, 12 year-old Kay and her much older sister Thea who is married to the ship’s captain. Kay is temperamental and impetuous but is a keen observer; she is also tormented by memories of her early childhood in Alberta where her stern father ran a Residential School. After two miscarriages at sea, Thea “acquires” young Micronesian boy they name Aren, an exchange for four tins of tobacco. The second part of the book takes place 10 years later at the sister’s home in Nova Scotia. Predictably Aren does not fit in so Kay ranges for a second sea trip back to the island of his origin. The writing is enchanting; a description of a mid-Pacific eclipse is breathtaking. This is a powerful story about differences, especially those that cannot be overcome.
There are two parts to this book. The first is a cross-Canada road trip to visit Chinese-Canadian restaurants that feature the ubiquitous but non-traditional chop suey dish. This epic trip begins in Victoria and concludes with a memorable visit to a one-person Chinese restaurant in Fogo Island, NL. Just the encounter with Newfoundlanders would make this book with reading. But the second part of the book is the story of the author’s father, his early life in China and eventual immigration to Canada. At its core, this is a moving treatment of parental sacrifice. A great read.
A compelling story of a Peruvian family displaced to New York as undocumented illegals. This is a relationship book that highlights a well-known fact that all relationships can be complicated, but none more that under the pressure of living illegally – how can Ana provide housing, food and shelter for her family? The displaced South Americans all watch Spanish soap operas on TV, but their own lives are infinitely more complicated than the TV plots. The essential question: what will you do to protect your family? This is an especially topical book given the current immigration chaos in the United States.
Canada Reads winner. This poignant and powerful memoir, written by an Auschwitz survivor, in presented in three parts. First, a happy childhood in Southern Czechoslovakia. Then second, at age 15, Max and his family are transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in the spring of 1944; he is separated from his mother and three siblings instantly who are all killed. Initially Max and his father and uncle work as slave labourers but then are separated and his father and uncle are targeted for death. Max’s survival is by chance (hence the title). He is arbitrarily selected to work in the concentration camp infirmary; this provides a unique look at how this “hospital” worked while staffed by political prisoners. The third chapter is post-liberation which is fraught with problems leading to a complicated process as a young orphan to find his way to Canada. One striking feature of the Auschwitz story is that simple survival was the over-arching imperative so Max’s psychological and emotional response to the loss of his entire family had to be suppressed. The Canada Reads success was due to three factors. First the panel proponent, Ziya Tong, was well-organized and passionate. Second, the current emergence of white supremacy (e.g. New Zealand atrocity) in the world demands an understanding of the holocaust. And the third factor was sort of reverse ageism, that Max represents a disappearing generation of Auschwitz survivors and so it is important to give this book an audience.
Canada Reads runner-up. Abu Bakr was born in Iraq. At the age of 9, his family relocates to Syria because of sectarian Sunni-Shia conflict, only to be swept into the Syrian civil war. The chapter headings are deceptively simple, unassuming and low-key: “May 2012: My First Massacre”. Finally, Abu Bakr’s family are accepted as refugees to Canada and so arrive in Edmonton in December 2014. Abu Baker speaks no English so his first school requirement to write a short story about his background is created by Google Translate. He then works with his ESL teacher Ms. Yeung to create this book. Thus, the literary style is basic but the simple stark prose lends itself to the telling of a profound story of survival and courage. The CR panel was influenced by the strong parental love element and the good news and hopeful ending.
This is a novel created from a Canadian story – what happens to a boatload of Sri Lankans who arrive in Vancouver as refugees. The novel addresses a number of critical and important questions. What would you do to escape a deadly civil war? What would you reveal during the Immigration and Refugee Board hearings? How can the adjudicators determine what is truth from what might be lies or at least omission of facts? Part of what makes this book great is the detail of the chaotic refugee bureaucracy, and the ease of subverting refugee claims by politicians arguing that terrorists must be within the refugee population. So the context is vivid and important, and the three central characters are complex. Another remarkable first novel, this is the best of the Canada Reads books, in my opinion.