Books to read for Black History Month

February has evolved into Black History Month. We can trace its origins back to 1926 when a man called Dr. Carter G. Woodson originated a Negro History Week to celebrate the anniversaries of the births of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln and celebrate the accomplishments of black Americans who never made it to the inside of a history book, or if so, not in any positive way. It is observed in the U. S., Canada and the U.K. The U.S. Government recognized Black History Month in 1976,the Canadian government in 1995  and the British government in 1987.

I live in Nova Scotia and there are two “firsts” that we can claim. The first all-black town was established in Nova Scotia in 1783 near Shelburne, called Birchtown,  and was populated by Loyalist Blacks feeling the American War of Independence. The settlers were recorded in The Book of Negroes which was featured in a very good (fiction) book by Lawrence Hill a few years ago. It’s well worth reading. Also related is Chasing Freedom by Gloria Ann Wesley which is a historical fiction novel about Birchtown.

Rosa Parks was a black woman who refused to sit in the back of a public transport bus in 1955 and it was a catalyst for the civil rights movement but before Rosa Parks, there was Viola Desmond who lived in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. She was a respected businesswoman but in 1946, she challenged the rule at a local cinema and refused to leave the section reserved for whites. She was arrested and charged with a minor tax violation and the publicity kicked off a similar civil rights movement in Canada. In 2015, Nova Scotia inaugurated an annual holiday in February. Each year Nova Scotia Heritage Day will be named in honour of a well known Nova Scotian. The first year, the day was dedicated to Viola Desmond and the new harbour ferry in Halifax is also named for her.

I’ve seen a number of websites and news articles in the past few days that are publishing lists of books by black authors so I thought I’d post a few links and suggestions here.

In addition to The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill, I’d recommend any of his other novels. I’ve also read Any Known Blood by LH.

Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan is another really good book by a Canadian author. It won the Scotiabank Giller prize and a number of other awards as well.

Fifteen Dogs and The Hidden Keys by Andre Alexis are definitely worth a look in . Fifteen Dog also won the Giller Prize. The Hidden Keys is his new book.

Another French Canadian novel also translated to English is the now-classic How to Make Love to a Negro by Dany Laferrière.

The Underground Railroad was a network of people that helped black slaves escape to Canada in the 19th century before slavery was abolished. I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land by Karolyn Smardz Frost is about the Underground Railroad and won a Governor’s General award for non-fiction in 2007. Of course there’s the current best seller, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is quite good. It might be “hyped” but apparently is worth the publicity. It’s on my TBR list.

We may think of Canada as the place that the American slaves ran to for freedom but Canada was a nation that only abolished slavery in 1834 with the rest of the British Empire. Canada’s Forgotten Slaves: Two Hundred Years of Bondage  by Marcel Trudel traces the history of slavery in Canada from the mid 17th century French colonies up to the abolishment.

Helen Oyeyemi is a black British author. Her books are listed here. I read Boy, Snow, Bird last year and it was pretty good. Another black British author I really like is Zadie Smith. I’m reading her newest book Swing Time at the moment. I’ve really liked almost all of her books though her first book, White Teeth and her third, On Beauty are my favourites. I think Swing Time is very good, too though I’m only halfway through at the moment.

Here’s a list for this year by the Guardian newspaper in the UK, and one from last year.
A Tumblr List from Penguin Randomhouse for a book a day, and another list from Penguin Randomhouse here.
A list of kids’ books collated by PBS



Project Bookmark creating a CanLit Trail

Installing the Bookmark for No Great Mischief (Alistair MacLeod) at Port Hastings, Cape Breton, NS

Installing the Bookmark for No Great Mischief (Alistair MacLeod) at Port Hastings, Cape Breton, NS

I came across a link to Project Bookmark Canada recently in the Goodreads CanadianContent discussion group. It is a charitable organization that is creating a “trail” of poster sized plaques or markers that contain excerpts from Canadian books or poems. The markers are signboards and are placed on the physical spot where the excerpt from the book actually takes place. The excerpt on the marker will be the one where that location is referenced. There are and will be locations all across Canada. It’s quite a cool idea and anything that promotes Canadian Literature or “CanLit” is a good thing.

Currently, there are 17 across Canada. It means you could, if you wanted, visit the locations and make a point of trying to find them all should you find yourself traveling through the various locations. It’ll be easier if you’re in Ontario, more specifically, souther Ontario because 13 of them are in Ontario locations, most along the lakes from Kingston to the US border by Niagara. That’s a bit disappointing but let’s hope that the future will bring funding for more widespread bookmark markers.

There is one in my province of Nova Scotia at Port Hastings visitor centre, just across the Canso Causeway in Cape Breton Island. This commemorates No Great Mischief by Alistair Macleod” and was put in place in 2015. We’re hoping to go on a road trip there in the fall so I will make sure we stop and have a look and a photo and I might even try to get my hands on a copy of the book from the library! There’s a marker in Vancouver for The Jade Peony by Wayson Choy and that’s another location I’ll be visiting later in the year so it’s going on my list, too!

It’s even more fun if you have actually read the book. I only recognized one book that I’ve read, Garbo Laughs by Elizabeth Hay. It’s marker is in Ottawa. There’s also one in Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland and the only other non-Ontario location is in Winnipeg, Manitoba. They started up in 2007 and erected the first bookmark in 2009 in Toronto, at the Bloor Street Viaduct, referenced in “In the Skin of a Lion” by Michael Ondaatje. The most recent one was just a few months ago in the gardens of Castle Loma, Toronto as depicted in a children’s book, The Cat and the Wizard by Dennis Lee.

They have a form on the website to suggest a location and book and I have thought about one for Halifax, where I live. Halifax is famous for the Halifax Explosion in 1917 and there have been several books written with that theme. One of the earliest is Hugh McLennan’s Barometer Rising. Another book I read recently is Tides of Honour by Geneveive Graham. I would like to find a spot that either of those books mentions specifically and suggest it. I have some research to do! They operate on donations with a lot of volunteers as well.

Their website defines their mission statement as:

Project Bookmark Canada is a one-of-a-kind, Canadian cultural innovation. Though many countries have tangible tributes to literature and writers, no other initiative in the world creates a permanent series of site-specific literary exhibits using text from imagined stories that take place in real locations.

Our vision is to blaze a Canadian literary trail connecting hundreds of Bookmarks in cities, towns and other areas across the country.

Word by word and kilometre by kilometre, Project Bookmark Canada is enhancing reading culture in Canada, strengthening our sense of ourselves, and using literature to link local communities to nation-wide conversations.

Literary Event: Read by the Sea

Penguin Randomhouse’s website is a wealth of information about Canadian authors and events. It’s a good place to look to find if there are any events near you featuring your favourite authors. I had a glance this morning and discovered that there is an event in my province, Nova Scotia, on July 8 in the small community of River John called Read by the Sea. It’s a literary festival that takes place at the Royal Canadian Legion Memorial Garden from 11 a.m. onwards.

mementoCurrently, they have three authors scheduled. I’ve only heard of one, Lesley Crewe. I read a book by her recently and really liked it and I’ve borrowed a stack of books from my cousin by her.  The other two authors are Christy-Ann Conlin and Dean Jobb. I’m not familiar with either of them. Conlin has a new novel out called The Memento which sounds quite good, a sort of gothic ghost story/coming of age thing.  Her first novel, published in 2002, Heave, also sounds wonderful. It seems to have had a lot of awards and acclaim.

I don’t know Dean Jobb’s work either.  He’s written a book, Empire of Deception,  about a con man in Chicago, Leo Koretz, who’s scam reaped millions of dollars he swindled from people on the premise of their investing in non existent timberland and oil fields back in the early 20th century. It crashed around him in 1923 and he tried to escape to Nova Scotia. He was the Bernie Madoff of his time.  Jobb has also written a number of books about various true crime cases in Nova Scotia’s past, a book about the Westray Mining disaster of 1992, and one about the story of the Expulsion of the Acadians from Nova Scotia by the new English rulers of the province in 1755.

The festival is apparently going to have another author added but it has not been confirmed yet. River John is a small community on the Northumberland Straight, the body of water between Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. It isn’t too far from the larger town of Pictou and Caribou Island from where the ferry to PEI leaves.  It’s a pretty spot. I’ve been there once to a wedding. Less than a 2 hour drive from Halifax, it might be a nice day out. I guess we can decide closer to the day. I’ll have time to read more of the Lesley Crewe books before then as well.

The website hasn’t been updated yet for the 2017 schedule of events but judging from last year’s, they have a theme with readings by the authors in the morning and afternoon. Lunch can be bought on site from food vans or you can bring your own, with live background music for atmosphere. There’s also a Q&A with all of the authors later in the afternoon and a prize draw. The festival has been in place since 2000 and it looks to have attracted some very high profile Canadian authors including Margaret Atwood, Linden MacIntyre, Michael Crummey, Donna Morrissey and more. I’m impressed!

River John is also hosting Wordplay, a similar festival for children on Monday, July 3, 2017, from 1 to 3:30 p.m.) at Mabel Murple’s Dreamery and Book Shoppe on Allen Street,  outside on the grounds. Isn’t that a fab name for a bookstore?