De­but novel puts big ideas to catchy beat

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - LIFE -

Jack­son — or Jack, as he goes by in the navy — har­bours a dark (lit­er­ally) se­cret: He’s white; his fam­ily isn’t.

Jack­son is the off­spring of black par­ents, and sib­ling to a black brother and sis­ter. But la­tent Cau­casian DNA buried deep in his fam­ily his­tory sur­faced when he was born.

He spent his child­hood and ado­les­cence “pass­ing.” He likes be­ing white. In race-con­scious Wind­sor and neigh­bour­ing race-con­flicted Detroit, it’s his pass­port to a bet­ter life.

But the price of that bet­ter life is de­nial of his fam­ily.

Caught up in the burn­ing and loot­ing of the 1943 Detroit race ri­ots, the teenage Jack­son found him­self part of a white mob that at­tacked his brother and fa­ther.

To es­cape Wind­sor, and his be­tray­als, he shortly there­after en­listed in the Cana­dian Navy.

He’s dis­patched to New­found­land, where his and Vi­vian’s fates col­lide, and then merge.

Vi­vian, mean­while, hasn’t a clue she’s mar­ried into a black fam­ily (none trav­elled from On­tario to St. John’s for the wed­ding). She only be­lat­edly fig­ures it out when she and Jack­son move to Wind- sor af­ter the war.

When she be­comes preg­nant, it’s not her that’s des­per­ate and afraid about the colour of their child, but Jack­son. Jack­son is a study. Grow­ing up, un­like his neigh­bours and fam­ily, he has no wish to chal­lenge the de facto seg­re­ga­tion op­er­a­tive in large parts of his com­mu­nity. Rather, he em­braces the sta­tus quo.

The sub­servient po­si­tion of black peo­ple doesn’t bother him be­cause, de­spite com­pelling ev­i­dence to the con­trary, he views him­self as white. In­vis­i­ble to him­self, he hasn’t a clue who he re­ally is.

Though Grady por­trays the com­plex­i­ties of race and racial pol­i­tics, there’s noth­ing overtly di­dac­tic here. It’s a novel of ideas that suc­ceeds pre­cisely be­cause it’s also a good story.

With­out giv­ing too much away, the fi­nal pages hint at Jack­son’s re­demp­tion — only to smash that hope at the last sec­ond.

It’s a bril­liant sucker punch of an end­ing.

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