Globe and Mail review of Reparations

Globe and Mail BOOKS
May 26, 2006

Black, white, past, future


By Stephen Kimber
HarperCollins, 402 pages, $19.95

The real Africville, Nova Scotia, was not a wholly wonderful place. It sat on the northern outskirts of a city whose parallel development outstripped it in every way. Halifax had sewers, clean water, street lighting; Africville never did. Landowners in Halifax had deeds and legal titles; the inhabitants of Africville were considered squatters from the time the first settler arrived after the War of 1812 until the last families were evicted in 1967. One other difference: The inhabitants of Halifax were mostly white; neighbouring Africville’s were black.

Despite its wretched condition, Africville was beloved by those who lived there, and their forced evacuation has rankled for 40 years. Most people who don’t live in Nova Scotia have never heard of Africville, and those who have sometimes consider the story to be a myth. In some ways, Reparations sets the record straight.

Stephen Kimber is an award-winning writer, editor, broadcaster and professor in the School of Journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax, and the author of five non-fiction titles, all set in Nova Scotia, including Flight 111: The Tragedy of the Swissair Crash. This book joins an impressive list of recent first novels by Canadian authors who’ve written regional stories about places we haven’t seen much of before, at least when it comes to crime. (Jo-Ann Terpstra writing about Gabriola Island, B.C.; Joan Boswell on Ottawa; Rob Harasymchuk writing about small-town Saskatchewan; Mike Harrison on Calgary; Ilona Van Mil writing about Northern Ontario…)

Crime novelists who take on fact-based stories about specific regions have a double obligation. They have to be true to the factual details they’re using as backdrops to their tales. And they have to give us a good read. Reparations certainly succeeds at the first task. The novel is clearly the result of careful research into the racism, neglect and misunderstanding that doomed Africville — as much during its existence as during its dismantling. To live in a slum but love it, to come from nowhere but still end up a somebody, to reside next door to people whom you envy but can never become, these are some of the complex issues — all based on history — that this novel grapples with. And when those issues are connected to characters, the novel works.

Two protagonists with a shared past find themselves face to face on either side of the bench in a criminal trial. One is Uhuru Melesse. He’s the lawyer defending a man accused of embezzling in order to give money to the descendants of people cheated by the "deal" of $500 and relocation offered to the evacuated families nearly 40 years before. Uhuru used to be Ray Carter, son of Lawrence Carter, the last holdout of Africville. Uhuru has made it in the white world, but only just. The other protagonist is Ward Justice. He’s the judge in the case. In a real case, he’d probably have to recuse himself, but when he refuses to do so, both he and Uhuru are forced to face the demons of the old days and the effect of the once-discarded past on the very real present.

These characters are aided by others from old times and new, from the white world and the black. There’s Rosa, a lovely young black woman completely trapped by prejudice, and Aunt Annie, an old black woman who soars above it. There’s Ward’s white wife Victoria, trapped by privilege and by the success of her husband. All of these characters are true to the historical reality out of which they arise, and when they are allowed to speak dialogue with each other and interact dramatically, the story lives.

Unfortunately, that is too seldom the case. The narrative here is about 25 per cent too long. There are far too many descriptive passages and, though the complexity of the tale is pleasing, the plot bogs down with excessive detail — both imaginary and real — about the provincial political manoeuvring that enabled the main characters to end up with the careers they have.

The courtroom scenes, in which Uhuru and Ward are finally pitted against each other, ring true and hold the reader’s interest, leaving one wishing for more of this kind of writing. There is redemption in the end, and despite the narrative problems, a clear picture of the whole Africville situation — both the travesty of the past and current efforts to somehow rectify the abuses — remains in the mind of the reader.

For a number of years, fiction and non-fiction have been moving ever closer together. Readers seem to love novels based on fact. Which is fine. But there is still a line to be drawn, and when that line is fuzzy, as it is in this book, neither fiction nor fact is fully served.

Rosemary Aubert has just completed her 11th novel, The Judge of Orphans, based on a true story about child street musicians.