Trying to Pass

A black Canadian as white during World War Two

You have to hand it to Wayne Grady. When he steps outside his comfort zone, he makes it a giant step. In the midst of a distinguished career as a non-fiction writer and translator—14 books, 15 translations from the French (including works by Antonine Maillet, Yves Beauchemin and Daniel Poliquin), three Governor General’s Award nominations and one win (for Maillet’s On the Eighth Day)—he has produced his first novel. And not just any old novel, but one set during and just after World War Two in Newfoundland, Windsor and Toronto, featuring several black characters, including one who is desperately determined to pass for white, and dealing with music, race and family dysfunction. There are a lot of ways for this to go wrong, but Grady—a skilled, careful and knowledgeable writer—does not miss a step.

The main story of Grady’s novel, Emancipation Day, begins in 1943 in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Among the thousands of sailors in the port city is Jack Lewis, from Windsor, Ontario, a trombonist in the Navy Band and a horn player, drummer and singer—“he looked so much like Frank Sinatra it took your breath away”—with the King’s Men, a swing group made up of Jack and several other musicians from the Navy Band, who get together to play at the local Knights of Columbus hall.

It is at the K of C that he meets Vivian Fanshawe, a local girl who volunteers at the dances, bringing sandwiches to the boys in the band. Sparks fly between the two, and despite resistance from Vivian’s well-to-do family—they just do not seem able trust the good-looking singer—the two date for a while, are married and head for Windsor so Vivian can meet Jack’s family.

She meets Jack’s mother, and his brother and sister, and a number of other friends and family members, but never seems able to get together with his father, William Henry. Vivian soon begins to suspect that there is more to Jack’s family than he is willing to admit. The fact is, of course, that Jack’s family is black, something every reader would know even if the cover notes did not give it away. The hints and foreshadowings are thick on the ground: comments about Jack’s hair and eye colour; references to “little pickaninnies” and “half-naked Negro men” in Rio de Janeiro. But Vivian does not see the obvious, and in any case is not looking for it. Besides, Jack’s mother, Josie—who might be the daughter of a Jewish bandleader, although “that didn’t make sense to anybody, so they ignored it”—could pass for white, and his brother and sister, at least, are blond.

Eventually, of course, it all comes out, though not “officially” until Vivian meets William Henry when he is hospitalized. “A thought struck her, a thought she had never quite formulated before but ought to have, she couldn’t imagine why she hadn’t: Jack’s family was coloured.”

Even then, when Vivian asks Jack why he had never said his father was a Negro, he answers: “‘What do you mean, a Negro?’ Jack said, as surprised and indignant as if she had told him his parents were codfish. ‘He’s not. My father and Benny both have blond hair, Alvina has blonde hair. Have you ever seen a Negro with blue eyes and blond hair? Look at me. Do I look like a Negro to you? Does my mother? Stop talking nonsense.’” Denial runs deep in Jackson Lewis, though to Vivian, “his response had evidently been prepared.”

This bare-bones outline does not nearly do justice to Grady’s novel. There are several intriguing subplots, and secondary but important stories are told in flashbacks and gradually deepened and broadened. The various supporting characters, from minor to significant, are sharply delineated and placed in nicely detailed settings. There are scenes in nightclubs, in parks and homes in Windsor, Toronto and Newfoundland, on the streets of Detroit during a riot, and—most convincingly—aboard the Royal Canadian Navy destroyer Assiniboine, escorting a 50-ship convoy across the Atlantic.

The latter section of the novel is remarkable. It is a cold and dreary morning when the bandsmen are marched to the docks and “pressed” into shipboard service. Jack laments that he joined the band “so I wouldn’t have to go to sea.” But to sea they go, and Jack’s adventures include a practical joke that goes badly, almost fatally wrong, combat with a German submarine and near-constant seasickness, as well as a couple of tense scenes between Jack and the ship’s doctor, who turns out to be from Windsor as well, and is the father of Jack’s friend Peter—and the husband of Della, a woman with whom Jack had a blistering affair.

Chief among the supporting players is William Henry Lewis, “of W.H. Lewis & Sons, Ltd., Plasterers, Willie to his wife, Will to his brother and friends, the Old Man to his sons, Pop to his daughter, William Henry to his mama who was living in Ypsilanti or Cassopolis, no one was certain where or even if she was still alive, she’d be in her nineties, and also William Henry to himself.” Jackson’s father is a proud, hard-working and hard-drinking man; some would say he is a drunk. He starts every day with a big breakfast and is then shaved by his brother, Harlan, proprietor of the barbershop in the British-American Hotel, the same shop formerly run by their father. The routine has lasted for 32 years, and often includes the first drink of the day.

Much of William Henry’s story arrives in flashbacks, especially his angry, long-lasting skepticism about his wife’s fidelity when the oh-so-white Jackson is born. But life goes on, more children come along and, over the years, matters settle into routine.

Back from the war, Jack works a few jobs with his father and brother, but plasterer is not his career dream, and he focuses on his calling as a bandleader. Other strands of Jack’s past are revealed as we go along, especially his youthful attempts to pass: joining the band known as the All-Whites; the affair with Della, the jazz-loving mother of one of his white band mates. Most movingly, there is the time when the nine-year-old Jackson disappears while the family is watching fireworks on Emancipation Day (marking the day in 1834 when slavery ended in the British Empire). The family, especially his mother, is frantic. Then, two days later, the police call. Jack—“that’s what he calls himself when he’s talkin’ to whites”—has been found, but when his father goes to claim him, the police cannot quite believe the little white boy is his. Moreover, Jackson is claiming that his parents are white, and that William Henry killed them.

If there is a disappointing aspect to the novel, it might be in the music. The jacket notes say the book is “steeped in the jazz and big band music of the 1930s and ’40s,” but I don’t know. Many of the scenes are in musical settings, from that Knights of Columbus hall to the Detroit nightclubs, but while music is Jack’s escape route from life as Jackson, I seldom got the impression that it moves him or makes him passionate.

But despite all that, Grady’s work is an absorbing, entertaining and informative look at love, marriage, men at war, family dynamics and, especially, race and racism in Canadian history: the off-hand bigotry and matter-of-fact discrimination of the whites in the book is hair-raising, and the subtler racism of black people against other blacks is no less so. I think this is the point of Emancipation Day, and it is a point very well made.