Since 2002, CBC has been hosting an annual battle of the books called Canada Reads. Five books are chosen, around a particular theme. Each book is championed by a noteworthy Canadian and, over the course of a week, four of the books are voted off the island, leaving one book that all Canadians should read.
Over the last few years, we have been buying all five of the books on the shortlist, reading most of them, and then enjoying the debates. This year’s theme is “One Book to Open Your Eyes” with the debates beginning on March 26th.
Just days after the shortlist came out, we this year we headed down to Books and Company In Picton, (a really awesome independent bookstore) and were able to get all five of the books. I love books and this little pile just seemed to make me feel a little richer. It was also cool to think that all over the country, people were picking up these same books and curling up to read.
I began with Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto and have to admit, I was disappointed and hoped fervently that this offering was not indicative of the entire group. The story is a good story blending the true-life stories of the horrors of World War Two, and prisoner of war camps in the Pacific with the injustice, and racism endured by Japanese Canadians in the story of two families that are eventually joined together through the marriage of their children. There is lots here, lots of strong themes, lots that we should know about, but, for me anyway, the punch of the book was lost in what I would call a lack of good editing. The book has spelling errors and sometimes wanders off into the minute pieces of life that really didn’t add to the story, but were written in a notebook somewhere and just had to be used.
My fears about the quality of the entire offering were quickly allayed as I got into the Boat People by Sharon Bala. A number of the same themes that came through in Forgiveness appear here as well, beautifully interwoven into the story of Tamil boat people arriving in Vancouver. References to the Japanese internment and the response of both the government and the public to the boat people suggest that the racism and injustice of the past is not really a thing of the past at all. This work of fiction, based on real events, is gripping and revealing.
I somehow managed to read the books in sets. Forgiveness and the Boat People share themes, localities, and even history. The next two books I picked up did as well, but they are very different than the first two in that both of them are apocalyptic in nature, science fiction written in a time somewhere in the future.
The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline is the only book of the set written by an indigenous author. It’s a young adult novel based in a time when, because of environmental degradation, people have lost the ability to dream. This ability continues in the native community and they are being tracked down and their bone marrow harvested so that the ability can be reclaimed by the colonizers. The Marrow Thieves is a story of colonization beyond land, a story of abuse of power, and a story of the struggle of a community to survive. Its a story of the battle against entitlement, and the strength that is found in bamding together against evil.
American War by Omar El Akkad is also a dystopian, apocalyptic novel. I’m not sure why this book is part of the Canada Reads offering. While it does touch on huge themes: climate change, war, the plight of refugees, the influence of foreign powers, the polarization of society, it is not strictly a Canadian book and doesn’t deal with issues that are uniquely Canadian. I suppose the big issues it does cover are all of our issues, international issues, but the book is set and plays itself out in an American context, imagining the result of current American political and societal trajectories. That said, American War is a great read, thought provoking, and just a little bit more than frightening.
Craig Davidson’s Precious Cargo was the last book on my pile. If I hadn’t been sick for a week, I’m not sure I would have gotten this far. After the dystopian novels, Precious Cargo was a breath of fresh air. Its the true-life account of Craig’s year as a school bus driver, driving his precious cargo of special needs teenagers. Interspersed with the story is an “unpublished” novel that puts the characters on the bus in a futuristic setting where they are integral to saving the world. Craig writes about his year as a bus driver, with humour and compassion, helping us to really see the kids on the bus for the people they are rather than for their disabilities.
So, that’s all five. They are an interesting mix of the past, the present, and the future. I’m glad I read all of them, rather than just the one that is crowned the book we should all read in a couple of weeks. In my opinion, the celebrity panel, with its voting process, often gets that book wrong.