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Aria

Aria

edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback
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Excerpt

Trucks rumbled along the gravel road in the dead of the night, vibrating like a line of ants, thick tarpaulins shaking as engines whirred and wheels lifted dust, fogging the cold February air. Behrouz Bakhtiar closed his eyes. A film of dirt coated the skin covering the thin bones of his face. He watched by moonlight as four eight-wheelers filled with young men from the provinces rolled away.

He would not be driving the young men home as usual. This was the first night of his four days off. He would instead place a cigarette in his mouth, light it with the last match he had in his pocket, and walk home down the red mountain, where earth min­gled with snow, then stride through the city from north to south. This was his Tehran, and he was its secret guardian, the angel perched on the mountaintop counting buildings, trees, lights, and people who walked about like insects, unaware of being watched.

Strange how people are, Behrouz thought, the cigarette between his thin lips. And he began his walk down and through the city just as he had planned, just as he had been anticipating all day. He slid down the slopes effortlessly, taking a drag from his cigarette every once in a while. He whistled when the mood struck him. He had walked this path many times, since he had first learned to drive up the mountain. How old had he been, seventeen? He was thirty-three now, so that made it sixteen years. With time off mul­tiplied by sixteen, that made about four thousand times he had walked up and down the slopes of Darakeh.

Sometimes, of course, the generals gave him permission to drive down and save himself the three-hour walk. And when Behrouz first got married, the general in command had not only encouraged him to drive, he’d let him off early to encourage hus­bandly duties—but not without reminding Behrouz how old his new wife was. “Think that wife of yours’ll be able to handle fresh little you?” the general had said.

Behrouz had married Zahra when he was nineteen, upon his father’s urging. “The Prophet was a boy, his wife was forty when he took her,” his father had said. But Zahra was no prophet’s wife. She was thirty-six, had never married, and had a son, Ahmad, who was the same age as Behrouz. Ahmad hadn’t come to the wedding. That night, when Behrouz asked his new wife where her son was, Zahra replied, “Somewhere in the prison halls.” Then she had forced herself on him.

When he’d first started driving trucks in the army, Behrouz had been more talkative. The soldiers liked him. They would reveal themselves, telling him about their lives on the farms or in small towns. If they were Tehrani boys, they talked about their schools and their girlfriends. The only one who had never opened up was a member of the royal family—a cousin of the king. But Behrouz supposed that was different. He had been ordered not to look the boy in the eyes.

Behrouz had begun learning to drive at sixteen because he wasn’t strong enough to fight, or smart enough to read. His father had taught him the basics. He could have sold bread on the streets like his father, or worked the oil mines like his uncles. But the one time he had suggested this, his father slapped him so hard, Behrouz saw stars for days. And that was the end of that.

Now, as he walked, the red dirt beneath his boots remained frozen. Three nights ago there had been a storm. But now the snow had settled and was packed along the path. The walk wasn’t as bad as he’d expected. He swiftly made it down Darakeh, to the northern tip of Pahlavi Street. Here there were cobblestone roads and the houses were old. He’d heard that the king’s father once lived here.

He walked past the old car parked along the street, searching his pocket in vain for another smoke. A man was walking toward him.

“Could I trouble you for a cigarette?” Behrouz asked. He had learned how to speak politely, like the people did up here. The man pulled out a single smoke from his pack. Behrouz took it and placed it between his lips. The man held out a lighter, its flame flickering in the slight breeze.

“Thank you,” Behrouz said, and began to walk away.

“No money?” the man said.

Behrouz waited.

“No money?” the man asked again.

“You want money for the light?” Behrouz said.

“What do you think?”

Behrouz searched both pockets awkwardly.

“Only kidding. Stupid man.” The man laughed as he walked away.

Behrouz stepped up his pace and cut through alleyways. He knew he was somewhere in Youssef-Abad district, midway through the city. He normally walked the main street, but tonight he felt like a change. Streams of sewer water ran in the gutters, but blos­soming mulberry trees flanked the roads. This district was one of his favourites. He liked the corner shops and the cinema and cafés, which were old but patronized by rich people.

He was staring at the letters on the front of the cinema when he heard the cry—like a cat in pain. He walked closer to where he thought the sound was coming from, but water gurgling in the gutter muffled its location. He crossed into another alley—nothing there. He continued to move from alley to alley, jumping over gut­ters. The more he found nothing, the more urgently he searched. His only help was the moon; there were no lights in the nearby homes; it seemed the rest of the world was asleep.

He finally reached the mulberry tree, which was flanked by rows of garbage. Staring up at him was a pack of wild dogs. He imagined them tearing the tiny creature who had made the sound limb from limb.

He grabbed a stick from the ground and charged. But none of the dogs moved. How long had they been there? As he neared, the dogs sat and watched quietly. At last, Behrouz bent down and lifted the baby into his arms. The dogs sniffed his feet, turned and left.

He sped toward the edge of town, past abandoned buildings in which the poor secretly lived, past stacks of cardboard where the even poorer slept. He wondered how long the child had gone without food. The stores were still closed, but his wife must have bought some milk, he thought frantically.

The baby didn’t look more than three days old. His head hurt. The stars whirled in the sky. At last, not far in the distance, he saw the pale outline of his house.

For three hours, Behrouz sat in his living room, trying to feed the child. He had woken a sleeping neighbour, who had found some milk, though the baby threw up most of it. Now, once again, he dipped the cap of his fountain pen into the bowl of milk beside him on the floor. He held the tiny vessel to the baby’s lips, careful not to tilt it too far. The milk flowed onto her lips, but only a few drops got in. He wiped her face clean with the back of his pinky finger. In a minute, he would try again.

Zahra was sleeping. Her son, Ahmad, out of jail only two days, had left his dirty boots on the kitchen table. He’d landed in prison for cutting someone’s fingers off, and Behrouz knew he would already be back to stealing.

By morning, Behrouz was struggling to keep his eyes open. From the north-facing window, he watched the rising sun. The rays crept toward him, along the floor. In the bedroom, his wife still slept soundly. He got up, walked into her room, and stood at her bedside, the baby to his chest. Zahra lay tightly wrapped in her blan­kets. She was fair-skinned, with straight, fine hair that turned a shade of light brown in summer. She liked to curl it these days, using little plastic rolls.

He returned to the living room and laid the baby gently on the floor. Then he walked quietly back to the bedroom.

“We have to talk,” Behrouz whispered.

Zahra covered her eyes to block the sun. “You’re home. Figured you’d be killing yourself with opium all night.”

“Come with me.” He pulled her out of bed.

In the living room, the baby’s arms and legs shook and she struggled like an overturned insect.
“I think she’s hungry,” Behrouz said. “I gave her some milk, but she hardly drank. She needs to suck it, I think.”

Zahra backed away from the infant. “Where did you find it? Is this some mess of yours we have to fix?” Her voice was sharp.

Behrouz picked up the baby. “Nothing like that,” he said. “Last night in the alley, there was waste all around her. I found her in Youssef-Abad.”

“That’s the North-City,” Zahra said. “What were you doing with those people? Listen to me: You put that baby where you found it so the trash who are her people can take it back.”

“There were dogs around her. I don’t know what they wanted, but—”

“Get it out of my house. And I know you do your own nasty business. You never touch me—as if I were made of fire and would burn you. But men are men. You must be touching somebody.” Zahra grabbed the baby’s face. “Did you take a look at its eyes? They’re blue. I swear on Imam Hossein you’ve brought a blue-eyed devil into my house.”

“Her eyes are green,” Behrouz said.

“No. There’s blue in them. You’ve brought evil into this house, Mr. Bakhtiar.”

Behrouz listened silently as Zahra walked away and into the bed­room, still shouting at him. Fourteen years with her and the rage had only worsened. He looked at the baby. Zahra was right. There was blue in those eyes. He couldn’t think how to comfort her. It had been so easy when he’d been a little boy and would play pretend. He would rock his baby, feed his baby, just like the neighbourhood girls did. And he’d been careful to never let his father know. But now, here was a real baby. The only thing he could think to do was speak to it, human to human. Not human to doll or master to slave. Yes, he would do what humans had always done, from the first crack of life.

“Want me to tell you a story?” he whispered to the little girl. Her wrinkled eyelids were shut tight, as if she would never want to face the world. “Want me to tell you the story of the Tooba Tree?”
Behrouz said again. And so he began, hoping to drown out Zahra’s shouts. “Past the clouds and the sky, way up in heaven, there is a tree, the Tooba Tree, from whose roots spring milk, and honey, and wine.”

“I curse the day I married a boy,” Zahra yelled from the other room.
Behrouz kept on: “Milk to nourish you, honey to sweeten you, wine to take you to the land of dreams.”

Zahra yelled louder. “Think you were my saviour, Mr. Bakhtiar? You only made hell last longer.”
Behrouz lifted the baby closer to his lips and whispered in her ear. “The Tooba Tree belongs to the orphans of heaven, for there is nothing that matters more, my little one.”

He stopped and listened for Zahra again, but she had finished her rant. The baby had opened her eyes but was falling back asleep. “You sang to me from that alley,” he whispered to her, “and I heard your song. Yet if I hadn’t, and if you had not been saved, the Tooba Tree would have been waiting for you and you would have been all right just the same.” Behrouz paused. He wondered if saving the little girl had been the right thing to do after all. But, since he had saved her and forced her into this thing called life, there was one more thing he needed to do.

“I used to love music, you know, when I was a little boy,” he said, putting his pinky finger in the baby’s mouth so she could suckle. “I used to sing, in secret, so my father wouldn’t know. I used to sing arias. Know what they are? Little tales, cries in the night. If you sing an aria, the world will know all about you. It will know your dreams and secrets. Your pains and your loves.”

Behrouz heard Zahra throw a pillow against the bedroom wall, and paused. After a few moments, hearing nothing more, he kept on. “I’ll name you Aria, after all the world’s pains and all the world’s loves,” he said. “It will be as if you had never been aban­doned. And when you open your mouth to speak, all the world will know you.”

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Magdalena

Magdalena

River of Dreams: A Story of Colombia
edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover
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Excerpt

In a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, a European woman asks a pro­fessor from Bogotá what it means to be Colombian. The man hesi­tates before replying, “I don’t know. It is an act of faith.” Colombia is like that. Nothing is as expected. Magical realism, celebrated as Colombia’s gift to Latin American literature, is within the country simply journalism. Gabriel García Márquez wrote of what he saw. He was an observer, a practicing journalist for most of his life, who just happened to live in a land where heaven and earth converge on a regular basis to reveal glimpses of the divine.
 
Only in Colombia can a traveler wash ashore in a coastal desert, follow waterways through wetlands as wide as the sky, ascend narrow tracks through dense tropical forests, and reach in a week Andean valleys as gently verdant as the softest temperate landscapes of the Old World. No place in Colombia is more than a day removed from every natural habitat to be found on earth. Cities as cultured as any in the Americas were for most of their history linked one to another by trails traveled only by mules. Over time, the wild and impos­sible geography found its perfect coefficient in the topography of the Colombian spirit: restive, potent, at times placid and calm, in moments tortured and twisted, like a mountain that shakes, crum­bles, and slips to the sea. Magic becomes the antidote to fear and uncertainty. Reality comes into focus through the reassuring lens of the phantasmagoric. A god that has given so much to a nation, as Colombians never fail to acknowledge, always gets his piece on the back end.
 
Certainly there was some kind of magic at work in the genesis of this new book, which celebrates the Río Magdalena, Colombia’s river of life. In 2014, I was invited to Bogotá by Héctor Rincón and Ana Cano, both acclaimed journalists from Medellín, to help pro-mote the Amazon volume of their series Savia Botánica. With the backing of Grupo Argos, one of Colombia’s most prominent corporate citizens, they had assembled teams of botanists, photographers, and journalists to survey the five major regions of Colombia with the goal of producing an elegant illustrated book on each—the Llanos, Amazonas, Chocó, the Caribbean coast, and the Andean Cordilleras. These Savia Botánica volumes were not to be sold, but gifted as complete sets to every library in the country, all with the goal of sending a message to a new generation of young Colombians that theirs was not a land of violence and drugs, but rather a place of unparalleled natural wealth and beauty, home to, among many wonders, more species of birds than any other country in the world.
 
One day, as we wrapped up a discussion of the latest Savia Botánica volume, I casually mentioned that, having focused on the Colombian landscape, perhaps it was time to pay attention to the rivers. I proposed, half in jest, that we do a book on the Río Magdalena, the Mississippi of Colombia, the vital artery of commerce and culture that runs a thousand miles south to north, traversing the entire length of the nation. To my surprise and delight, my new friends embraced the idea without hesitation, as indeed did Grupo Argos, which immediately offered its unconditional support for the project. That whimsical remark turned out to be a defining moment, for the research and writing of this book would in the end consume nearly five years.
 
Colombians think of the Magdalena as having three sections—Alto, Medio, and Bajo—divisions with overlapping and even shifting boundaries that nevertheless reflect geographical, historical, and cultural distinctions far more profound than the simple terms high, middle, and low would imply. Thanks to the generosity of Grupo Argos, I was able to explore the Magdalena in all its dimensions, from source to mouth, in all months of the year, with every shift of the seasons, from the uplands of the Macizo Colombiano to the sand and stones of the Caribbean shore. Altogether, I made five extended forays to the river: two with the Savia team, led by Héctor Rincón and Ana Cano, surveys that covered the entire drainage, and two subsequent explorations that concentrated on the Medio Magda­lena and the musical traditions of the lower river and the Caribbean coastal plain. The fifth brought me back to the Arhuaco mamos, old friends from my time in the Sierra Nevada, as we returned to Bocas de Ceniza to make ritual payments at the mouth of the river, even as the streets of Barranquilla erupted all around us with the magic and joy of Carnaval.
 
The Río Magdalena is not just the country’s main artery; it’s the reason Colombia exists as a nation. It is the lifeline that allowed Colombians to settle a mountainous land that geographically may well be the most challenging place on the planet. Within the Mag­dalena drainage live four of every five Colombians. It is the source of 80 percent of the nation’s economic wealth, the engine that drives the economy, the river that powers the lights of the great cities. Like the Mississippi, its shadow to the north, the Magdalena is both a corridor of commerce and a fountain of culture, the wellspring of Colombian music, literature, poetry, and prayer. In dark times, it has served as the graveyard of the nation, a slurry of the shapeless dead. And yet always, it returns as a river of life. Through all the years of the worst of the violence, the Magdalena never abandoned the people. It always flowed. Perhaps, as this book suggests, it may finally be time to give back to the river, allowing the Magdalena to be cleansed of all that has soiled its waters. Colombia as a nation is the gift of the river. The Magdalena is the story of Colombia.

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Motorcycles & Sweetgrass
Excerpt

ONE
 
The first day she arrived she knew she wouldn’t like it. The place was cold and drafty. The clothes they made her wear were hot and itchy. They didn’t fit well at all, and all the girls had to wear the exact same thing. The boys, situated at the opposite end of the building, were not allowed to talk to the girls. Brothers weren’t allowed to interact with sisters, cousins and so on. Only the People in Black, otherwise known as the Nuns and the Priests, were allowed to talk to each other. To the young girl, these people had nothing interesting to say. And what they did say was usually not very nice. And what they did was sometimes even worse.
 
Those with darker skin who were not yet adults and free of this mandatory education called it the Angry Place. Still, she put up with it. It had taken a long time to get here and she instinctively knew it would take her a much longer time to get home. Wherever that was—she had no idea if it was north, south, east or west. It was just far away. As soon as she arrived, she was told stories of one of the girls trying to run away. She wasn’t the type to break the rules like that. Instead, she decided to deal with the present by con cen trating on the past and the future: remembering the family she had just left, and imagining the family that she would someday have.
 
Sister Agnes had christened the girl Lillian. As soon as she had arrived, they told her that her Anishnawbe name was not to be uttered anymore. Her old name became her secret that she kept close to her—so close, she would seldom speak it aloud. Her grandmother had given it to her a decade and a half ago. In this place, words other than English or Latin were unchristian and those who used them were punished severely. So, she became Lillian.
 
The girl worked hard to learn their language better. She was an average student, but critical, often wondering to herself why she should care about a train leaving Toronto, travelling at eighty kilometres an hour. She outwardly learned to respect this place—but was suspicious of it. An incident just before bed on her second day there had planted that seed. In fact, it made her doubt the whole enterprise. She and Betty, a newly made friend, had discovered that their mothers had the same name—and they had found this hilarious, falling into an uncontrollable fit of the giggles. Out of nowhere, Sister Agnes appeared. She scolded, “Stop that this second.”
 
The girls looked at each other, uncertain. Betty, who had always kept on the sister’s good side, asked meekly, “What is it, Sister?”
 
“Stop that laughing—it is rude and not acceptable in a house of God such as this.”
 
This, of course, made the girls laugh all the harder. What kind of a place was this? Not a day, or more like it, an hour went by at home when Lillian didn’t hear her mother break into loud guffaws. It was what Lillian loved best about her. Oftentimes (more often than not) these White people made no sense at all.
 
 
“Did you hear about Sam?” whispered Rose, one night, about a year after Lillian had arrived. Rose was the only one of them who had managed to pick up a smattering of Latin during the many church services they were forced to attend. As a result, most considered her the People in Black’s pet. All the girls were kneeling by their cots saying their prayers. In an attempt to curry favour with her fellow inmates—though she maintained that she didn’t know that much Latin—Rose would often tell them what was going on.
 
“No,” said Lillian. “What about Sam?” Sam Aandeg was from her community, one of the only familiar faces here, though they spoke only about once a month. She was related to Sam through her mother’s first cousin—and he had a rebellious streak. When he arrived he’d bitten a Nun attempting to shave his head. That was seven years ago, and time and repeated punishments had not managed to subdue him.
 
“He’s in trouble again!”
 
“Why?” Lillian asked, kneeling by the cot next to Rose’s.
 
The girl whispered, “The usual. Being mouthy. He’s in the shed. And Father McKenzie won’t let him leave until he can memorize all the monologues in that stupid play. He’ll probably be there overnight.”
 
“Again!” she said. Lillian had taken to caring for her way ward cousin, knowing his nature was instinctively to wade against the current of any river. But one did not wade against the current of the Angry Place. “Well, it’s a good thing the mosquitoes are gone,” she told Rose. “Like sitting in that shed is going to change anything. He should know better.” Secretly, though, she admired his resistance. Indian boys and girls who misbehaved spent a lot of time in the shed, Sam more than most. Some people might not see the connection between placing defenceless children in confined spaces for prolonged periods of time and any particular passages in the Bible. Perhaps the People in Black reasoned that Christ had spent those couple of weeks in the desert, trying to figure things out and come up with a life plan. It had worked for Him. It should, in theory, work for these savages too. It was, they believed, a win-win situation.
 
So there sat Sam, a copy of a four-hundred-year-old play, which he struggled to read, on his lap. For most of the day in October, the shed was way too dark to read in. Still, boredom made unwitting readers of the most stubborn students. On clear nights when the moon was waxing, a narrow diagonal strip of light fell across the dirt floor. If the resourceful penitent placed the book just right, he could sometimes make out passages in the moonlight.
 
Memorizing sections of this play was no problem. He came by it naturally. Though consensus in the big brick building was that Sam was unintelligent and a problem student/child/Indian, he was actually very smart. And he wilfully refused to give Father McKenzie and the rest the satisfaction of knowing this. “To be or not to be, that is the question,” he read aloud.
 
Sam liked this question. He, and practically every student in the building, could understand the quandary. Many wrestled with it every day. Some won. Some lost—but there were always more arriving to fill their places.
 
It was too cold to sleep, and the growling from his stomach kept him awake. Gradually he dragged the book across the dirt floor, struggling to read in the shifting patterns of moonlight.
 
His lone voice broke the silence. One line, after the monologue in Act 1, Scene iv, caught his eye. “‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.’”
 
Boy, he thought, I don’t know what or where the hell this Denmark is but it can’t smell nearly as bad as this place. Denmark would have to be an improvement.
 
 
“Sam! Wake up! Sam Aandeg! Hurry and wake up!”
 
Amazingly, Sam had managed to fall asleep sometime before dawn, worn down by the cold and strain of trying to read in the darkness. The book had been his pillow. It was a few moments before he could manage a response to his cousin’s tense knocking on the shed’s splintered wall.
 
“What!” he snapped groggily. He tried to unroll from a fetal position, but couldn’t. Waking up in this place was painful. He longed for his bed back home.
 
“It’s me, Lillian. You okay?”
 
All he could make out was one brown eye peering through a gap, and a bit of the plain grey dress she, like all the girls, wore.
 
“I hate that name. You’re not Lillian.”
 
By now, he had managed to move to his hands and knees, and he stretched like a cat.
 
“Don’t be like that. I can’t stay long. Here, I brought you something to eat.”
 
“I’m not hungry.” They both knew that was a lie. “What . . . what did you bring?”
 
Near the bottom of the rear wall of the shed, about a foot of one plank was missing, broken off when a shovel had once been carelessly tossed into the back. Through it, she passed a wrapped-up packet, and Sam groaned in pain as he reached for it.
 
“It’s just some toast and jam. That’s all I could sneak out.”
 
Trying not to look ungrateful, he took the offering and slowly opened it. He was an angry boy, and life was unfair, and a large part of him wanted to piss off the entire world. But there was still enough of the little boy from the Otter Lake Reserve to know right from wrong. And to be gracious when someone was being kind.
 
“Thank you” he managed to mumble. Trying to show some restraint, he ate the toast as slowly as possible.
 
“You shouldn’t be here. They’ll catch you and you’ll be on the inside looking out, like me.” He watched as his cousin looked around warily.
 
“I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”
 
“I’m cold. I’m hungry. I’m mad. But I’m okay.”
 
All of this was spoken in Anishnawbe, the forbidden language. Sam revelled in it, but Lillian switched quickly back to English. It was bad enough that she was here now, but if anyone overheard them, who knew what they would be in for.
 
“Why do you always get yourself in trouble like this?” whispered Lillian. Licking his fingers of the last remnants of jam, Sam just shrugged. “I can’t keep sneaking around in the middle of the night to bring you food. If either of us gets caught . . . And someday, you’ll get yourself into so much trouble that they’ll send you away and I won’t be able to help at all. You should just do what they say. It’s less trouble.”
 
“I don’t care about trouble, I just want to get back home. This place is no good. I’m going to run away,” he answered in Anishnawbe.
 
Lillian shook her head. “You’ll get yourself killed. You don’t even know which way home is. Remember Daniel River and James Magood.” They were both silent for the moment.
 
“I’m not them. I know where home is. I saw it in that book. I saw the river and the islands. I’m sure that’s them. And I know the bush.” Sam paused for a moment. “Wanna come?” From somewhere near the kitchen, they both heard some of the kids yelling as they played a quick game of soccer before classes. “No, huh?” Lillian leaned against the shed, making it squeak. “You like it here, don’t you.”
 
“No. Not really.”
 
“Then why don’t you want to go home?”
 
Sam could see her hair squeezing between two of the boards as she rested her head against the shed. “I’m older than you, Sam, so you listen to me.”
 
“Only by three years.”
 
“That doesn’t matter. I get to go home next year. And I like learning. I like knowing there’s so much out there. I’m still trying to figure things out. Remember that map they showed us of the world? My grandmother used to tell me all of us were sitting on the back of a Giant Turtle. That’s what we were taught. I didn’t see any turtle there, Sam. It’s a big . . . they call it a continent. There’re lots of them.”
 
“I’ll find you a turtle if you want one so badly.”
 
“I thought the world was full of magic. I don’t think it is. Maybe once it was. Not any more.”
 
“What are you so depressed about? I’m the one in the shed.”
 
“And I kind of like this Jesus guy they talk about all the time,” she said.
 
“You like a White guy?”
 
“They say he’s Jewish, and that’s not the same.”
 
“Looks White to me.”
 
Silence surrounded them, and Lillian looked behind her to make sure she hadn’t been discovered. Her life up until then had been divided into White people and her people. “I think they are White too—but a girl here told me that it has something to do with their dicks. And pigs. I think.”
 
“Dicks and pigs? They’re weird. That guy Shylock is a Jew—and he was mean. Fine, then. I’ll go home alone.”
 
Lillian turned and looked at him once more, one eye peering through a separation in the slats. “I really wish you wouldn’t.”
 
“I’m not staying here. I won’t stay here.”
 
“Sam, please be careful. This place is no good, I know. But if you just pretend, it’s so much easier. Don’t make such a fuss.”
 
“But it’s different for me than you—that priest . . .”
 
“Oh, Sam, he’s just a big bully. He can only hurt you if you let him. Don’t you remember what you promised your folks? That friend of your mom’s—you said you wouldn’t end up like her. Nothing is worth that.”
 
“But I can’t stay here—I just can’t.”
 
“Sam, that guy’s just mean. But at least he’s teaching you all about Shakespeare. You told me you loved that stuff. You’re so smart.” She had slipped into Anishnawbe without realizing, until her tongue tripped on that old writer’s name. She checked herself—if she wasn’t careful she might be keeping her cousin company in the shed some time soon.
 
For the first time, their eyes locked. “What, what is it Sam?”
 
But he couldn’t tell her what it was; he hardly knew what it was himself. “Goodbye, then, Mizhakwan . . .”
 
She glowed inside—he had said her name aloud in the forbidden language. And she knew that he was right. The best thing was for him to get away any way he could—and she should help him too. But these people had eyes in the back of their heads. Both of them would be punished. She looked around and walked stealthily away.
 
She was so confused. It was possible to be right and wrong at the same time. This place was challenging everything she had ever known before. But at least she was learning more than she ever learned back home.

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The Sister's Tale
Excerpt

ONE
Mouse Traps Duly Set

IN JOSEPHINE’S PARLOUR, Mr. Fairweather sat close to the Franklin stove, hands held open to its heat. His eyes were like a dog’s, trusting and earnest, and Josephine wondered at his distress. She enjoyed the rare occasions when they were alone together, remembering how, when they were schoolchildren, he had once slipped her a misspelled note, folded to the size of a pansy.

Dear Josephine, will you mary me?

“I apologize for this intrusion, Mrs. Galloway,” he said. “It is because of the urgency of the matter, a young girl.”

He sat back from the fire, turned to her.

“But first, tell me what you hear from your husband.”

“I have only my last letter from him when he was provisioning the ship in New York. Now, of course, he is at sea so I won’t hear from him for some time.”

She closed her eyes, briefly, rejecting even the possibility of sympathy. Her fingers stroked the nap of her cuffs, like petting a cat.

“It is the way for a sea captain’s wife.” Her voice was steady, held riches. “I am accustomed to it. But please, tell me. What young girl?”

“As you know, my duties are . . . extensive. We have no almshouse in Pleasant Valley.”

A year ago, when Harland Fairweather was appointed Overseer of the Poor by the Justices of the Peace, his wife, Permelia, had whispered the news to Josephine as they were leaving church. He does not want to do it. She smelled of the new wintergreen tooth cleaner from McClean’s Drug Store. He will have to pay a substantial fine if he refuses. I told him he must take the position.

Harland and Permelia lived with four daughters in a mansard-roofed brick house next to Fairweather’s Gentlemen’s Clothing at the lower end of Josephine’s street, where Creek Road met Main Street. Josephine often witnessed Harland in the office at the back of his store, stern and remote, like a display behind glass. All the men in her own family were business owners. Her husband’s father owned the town’s largest dry goods store; her own father, now in partnership with his two sons, owned a boot and shoe factory.

“I have seen the discussions about the almshouse in the paper,” Josephine said. “I concur with the opinion that the poor should have such a place, well-staffed and provisioned by the province.”

He paused, surprised, and she surmised that Permelia did not read the brand-new Weekly Record. Or perhaps, careful with her grammar, her manners, the people with whom she associated, she perused only the social notes. Growing up, Permelia had been, if not poor, at least disadvantaged; her widowed mother had worked at the steam laundry.

“There is much discussion, indeed,” he agreed. Relief, she saw, that he could discuss this with her; and a hint of yearning, quickly hidden by a return of his eyes, and hands, to the stove’s heat. “Based upon the exigencies of taxation rather than compassion.”

She brushed her hands down her skirts, looking at the tips of her shoes. His care for her held no threat or urgency, only made her feel the poignancy of such a friendship.

At the end of the room was an outflung octagonal turret, where the Christmas tree stood, filling the parlour with the aromas of moss and sap. Last night, Josephine and her daughters had decorated the tree with popcorn chains, gilded walnut shells, and stars made of paper-lace.

“I have read about the auction, Mr. Fairweather. Once a year, paupers are offered for sale.” The bidding went downward, rather than up. The lowest bidder won the pauper. “It saves the province money.”

“Precisely. There is a girl up for auction. I have visited her. Her name is Flora Salford.”

He folded his hands in his lap and watched the fire. She saw his lips tighten, pained.

“Why? Why is she up for auction?”

“Evidently she was brought from England by one of the philanthropic people or organizations. She mentions a lady whose name she may never have known. She . . . Flora . . . has been here in Canada for five years and has somehow fallen through the cracks, as it were. I suspect that Maria Rye is the philanthropist responsible. Have you heard of her?”

“Yes.” Josephine had seen pictures of Maria Rye in the newspaper. She was an Englishwoman. The children she brought to Canada were known as “Miss Rye’s girls.”

“She is a bit slipshod in tracking the children, especially those not taken to her distributing home in Niagara-on-the-Lake but dropped in Halifax or St. John.” A log crumbled. He prodded the fire into shape with the poker. “The short of Flora’s story is that she went to a farmer and his wife, who were both killed in a carriage accident.”

“I heard of that accident, on the Mine Hill. Terrible.”

“The girl has no one and so has ended up on the pauper rolls. Hence she is to be sold at auction.”

“She has no one? No friends of the couple who could take her in?”

“No. I tried . . .”

Harland broke off, leaning forward to peer out a patch of window where the frost ferns were dissolving.

“I begged him not to go out this morning. It is twenty degrees below, I told him.” Harland kept a weather station. Every morning, he raised a flag on the roof of his house so he could see the least twitch of breeze. “It is one and one-half a degree colder on this morning than it has been on any December twenty-third for nine years.”

Josephine craned to see out the window, touched by his concern. Snow rose as from the bristles of an invisible broom; drifted, iridescent in the morning sun. Beyond the expanse of snow-covered lawn, she could see Harland’s elderly father walking down the street, terrier at his heels, the tassels of a paisley shawl flirting with the tops of his boots. The dog scurried, eyes squinted against the cold—reluctant, obedient.

“There’s a reason we call my father The Commodore, you know. He will brook no interruption in his routine. Save for death, as he says.” He watched a moment longer. “Ah, well.” Harland sat back. “No, as far as I can tell, Flora is utterly alone. I managed to find a family to take the girl through Christmas. They will have her until the auction.”

Josephine brought to mind the customary image of a Home Child—“street Arabs,” they were called, assumed to be rough, ill-bred, untrustworthy.

“Why have you come to me, Mr. Fairweather?”

“Unfortunately, Mrs. Galloway, I cannot offer her to you as a servant. By dint of poverty, like any pauper, she has been made a ward of the province. I must beg you to come to the auction . . .”

She drew back.

“I have never—”

He raised a hand. “I understand. I beg you, nonetheless, to come to that rabble of hard-faced men and I will hear your bid, no matter how softly you may give it, and I will make sure that my gavel comes down for you. I fear for that child. She is . . .”

He played a few imaginary piano keys with two fingers, looking at the ceiling. A leaf dropped from an aspidistra with a leathery tap.

“You and I have daughters of our own. Flora is fifteen. Despite the evident hardship of her history, despite the lack of . . . all, you know, that we have given our own daughters . . . she is an exceptionally beautiful young person. And what those men will—”

“Ah,” Josephine interrupted. She brought the back of one hand to her mouth, closed her eyes and took a long breath. The ticking of the clock, the crackle of the fire—wind-brushed snow spun past the window.

“Yes, Mr. Fairweather. I can find work for her.”

“The auction will be held after Christmas,” he said. He relaxed back into the chair, crossed his legs. “At the train station. I am in your service, I am indeed. You lighten my heart with your kindness.”

“No, no. I have so much. A husband, a family. All of this.” She offered him her home on the palm of her hand. “It is the least I can do.”

The smell of baking gingerbread rose from the kitchen. A maid, carrying linens, came down the stairs, passed through the hall. The ornaments on the Christmas tree turned, borne on invisible currents of sweet-scented air.

She stood in the door watching as Mr. Fairweather walked down the drive between shoulder-high snowbanks thrown up by Mr. Dougan’s wooden shovel. Cold thinned her nostrils—like the crisp edges of Ellen’s butter cookies.

Lucy, seventeen, and Maud, fifteen, would soon be walking home from the Pleasant Valley Academy, the daughters of a sea captain, well fortified against the cold in their long wool coats, mittens and fur hats. George, attending the University of Mount Allison College in Sackville, was returning tomorrow on the train.

She watched Harland as he swung firmly down the hill in the direction The Commodore and his dog had been heading—towards home, dinner, family; and she was gripped by her husband’s absence and the dangers he risked. She tried to dismiss fear, although she could not—it remained, dark, dull, tarnishing happiness.

In the parlour, she resumed her seat before the fire. She took Simeon’s last letter from a pile on a marble tabletop and ran her hand over the paper with as much tenderness as if vellum were skin. She unfolded it, read for the fifth time:

My dear Josie,
I write from New York, where I am comfortably installed in 
The Grand Hotel while “Marianne” is being provisioned. 
Sailor is curled at my side.

Sailor. His beloved St. John’s water dog.

I have agreed to take six women—a mother and two daughters
travelling with servants—to South Carolina. Mrs. Holdwell’s
daughter is to be married in Charleston. I told her we would head
southwards in the New Year, passing Cape Hatteras and keeping as
far east as possible from the Outer Banks. I struggle to complete my
crew. It is getting harder to find seasoned seamen than in Uncle N’s
day. The first mate is experienced but in poor health. The second
mate is only nineteen, although willing and honest. I have not yet
found a man as capable of navigation as I am myself.

It was the fault of his Aunt Azuba and Uncle Nathaniel in Whelan’s Cove, she thought. All his boyhood, picking apples in his uncle’s orchard or sitting on their veranda high over the Bay of Fundy, he’d imbibed seafaring tales: rounding the Horn; sighting a ship stranded on an iceberg; Antwerp’s museums; the volcanic islands off Java.

Sea captains’ wives are now a rare thing; they are perhaps even pitied. The sea will be my mistress, he’d said, when asking for her hand in marriage. I will not mind, she’d murmured. Mount Allison Wesleyan Academy schooled, modern and brazen, she’d been oddly thrilled by the idea of the sea as seductress. And although their parents did not approve, the wedding was sumptuous and Simeon had proved them wrong with his success.

She slipped the letter back in the envelope and held it to her cheek, watching the fire. The sea, as seductress, had become a thing she wished he would renounce.

He would miss another Christmas.

She rose, restless, went into the front hall and lifted a calling card from a silver dish. She studied its scrolled letters, thinking not of the visitor they represented but of the house rising up around her with its routines—polished salvers on the sideboard, the order sent to Mr. Cardwell’s butcher shop, mouse traps duly set—and of how she must contrive to cause no ripple, no storm, as if to do so would threaten Simeon’s voyage.

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The Certainties
Excerpt

Yesterday when the three of us presented ourselves at the station, we did as Suzanne’s contact had instructed—waiting inside the tunnel until the train from Perpignan arrived and then slipping into the station with the passengers who were disembarking. We acted as if we’d come in with everyone else: three more ragged travellers among a collective of “fty or sixty, lugging the last vestiges of our old lives in beat-up cases across the platform. 

As we moved forward, four Spanish police officers appeared, checking papers and ushering passengers in one of two directions: Spaniards with identity cards were allowed to exit, while the rest of us were steered toward a large set of double doors that had been wedged open and led to a room that appeared to have once been a central waiting room or a customs hall. It had high ceilings, slow-spinning fans, and beige walls strutted with concrete pillars capped with Corinthian designs. There was a row of seats near the door to the platform, but most of the room was empty, save for the long tables where the guards were inspecting suitcases and the counter to their left where a clerk was stationed. Behind her, there was another room, or something approximating a room—an area partitioned by a low wall—in which a half-dozen men sat at desks behind lamps and typewriters and telephones.

Suzanne waited in line with the other passengers to see the clerk, while Bernard and I stood near the door to the platform. The clerk was a local woman in the drab clothes of a civil servant, her expression stern, her dark hair wound into a tight coil at the nape of her neck. I wanted to sit on one of the wooden chairs lined up by the wall because my legs were still weak from the climb across the col, but the situation seemed to call for standing, so I remained beside Bernard with a French newspaper tucked purposefully under my arm and my battered black briefcase wedged between my feet. The air in the room, just off the platform, was stale with cigarette smoke and the grease of the locomotives. I had to “ght to keep from coughing. There were dozens of people in the queue before and behind Suzanne, mostly French it seemed, many likely trying to get to America on their papers, and a few German-looking like me. All of us were adults—as if everyone had sent their children to remote locations for safety months ago, as Suzanne had. 

How many people like me, I wondered—stateless, stripped of their citizenship—had come through here” How many thousands or tens of thousands had stood in this room” I had, in my briefcase, identi—cation papers, the appropriate visas, and six petitions for my care from French citizens of import. I had examples of my academic work and a letter of promise from an American publisher for my new essays on the Metamorphoses. Few others would have so much support. There had been a demand for my extradition in Paris, and the Gestapo had con'scated my apartment and what books and papers I’d left there, but I knew in my blood that the bureaucracy of the war was too great, and my signi—cance too negligible, for any record of these transgressions to appear in an office such as this. Nonetheless, in the reality of the moment—the grey despondency of the people trudging forward, the clerk’s unsympathetic expression as she questioned a woman wearing too light a dress for the changing season—I felt frightened. And standing there, my feet throbbing in my shoes, a procession of human bewilderment shuffling along in front of me, I tried to locate what I was seeing, what vision of the future haunted me. I looked to the woman nearest me—in her “oral print dress and cloche hat and smart gloves—and her eyes were full of fear. The man in line behind her—his beard suffering from the lack of a barber—his eyes were also full of fear. I found myself asking of each—what have you done, what might they hold against you” I thought then of that line in Ovid’s poem when Narcissus is at the pool studying his own re—ection: ‘He fell in love with an insubstantial hope.’ What was our hope” That the disarray of the war neuter our interrogators” That we had now become as insigni—cant as we have been made to feel, so that we might slip through the cracks in our nothingness” Standing there in the shared misery of other travellers struggling forward with their papers clenched in their hands, I looked for myself . . . for some version of me . . . or for someone’s eyes to meet mine with a look that said we would be all right. I realized what I was doing with a shock: at that moment, even after being on this earth for “ve decades, to still feel empathy most easily in those cases that re—ect my own” This was a failing. Perhaps the greatest failing of all.

When Suzanne reached the front of the line, Bernard and I joined her. She smiled at the woman on the opposite side of the desk. ‘Buenas tardes,’ Suzanne said and then she gave the name of the capitán we’d been supplied with—Marco. The clerk raised her eyebrows at his name, swivelled on her stool and called out something I couldn’t quite parse to the men stationed at their desks behind her. A few looks were exchanged between the officers—not of the sort that would occur when one is trying to locate a person, but expressions that asked, Who will deal with this” After a minute, a man in a pinstriped suit with a fresh haircut stood up, buttoning his jacket and stubbing out his cigarette in the ashtray on another man’s desk as he came toward us. He was dark-haired and dark-skinned, as if he’d grown up on the coast. I immediately wished he was in a recognizable uniform.

‘¿Esteu buscant en Marco?’ he asked. He smoothed his moustache with his thumb and fore—nger and looked Suzanne over coldly—her bright lipstick and smart brown dress indicative of Paris, as was her fair hair, her accent, her bearing. He glanced over at Bernard and me, who stood behind her, ragged as refugees, though we’d wiped our shoes, and scrubbed and dried our pant legs at the hotel so our means of entry would appear normal. ‘Français” Allemand?’ he continued.

Suzanne clicked open her purse and presented her papers, and Bernard and I handed ours forward as well. Then Suzanne began as rehearsed—professional, almost impatient. She introduced herself and said, ‘Je parle au nom des ces personnes  .  .  . I am speaking for these individuals . . . We three have transit visas for Spain and papers for America.’ The officer inspected our documents and signalled that we should move aside with him, farther down the counter. When it seemed he was taking too long with our documents, Suzanne put on an air of irritation and asked for his name. He gave it—‘Señor Porras’—without so much as lifting his eyes from our papers. Then he asked Bernard and me to step forward.

Bernard put both hands onto the lip of the counter to steady himself. He’d been ill since Marseilles and was weak from the climb over the mountain. From how he wavered beside me in his loose suit and cap, I suspected that he was running a fever again; his thinness, his gaunt face made him appear like some sort of mirage, not wholly present in the room. Señor Porras regarded Bernard for a minute and then turned to my papers and me. We had hoped to seem innocuous: people whose in—uence was limited to small academic or artistic circles, people whose work dealt more with esoteric ideas and less with political ideologies. This was, in truth, the case for Bernard: as a painter he’s less of a revolutionary than most, though both he and Suzanne—whose husband is Bernard’s agent—were part of an anti-fascist circle in Paris, and Bernard was one of six or seven artists I knew whose work the Gestapo had deemed degenerate. 

What did I think of then, when Señor Porras was regarding me” Taking stock of my clothes, my face, and my expression” I thought of the briefcase between my feet. Of the manuscript on the Metamorphoses inside it and the notes from my last revision of the Narcissus essay—pages of new ideas dashed off in the Bibliothèque Nationale in the week before I left Paris—shoved into an envelope. I thought of my desire to have this manuscript arrive in safe hands and of the possibility that some German intelligence agent could “nd incriminating ideas in the work, ideas that weren’t there—born solely from his own small-mindedness and his desire to see them.

We had hoped that our transit visas for Spain would be stamped without hesitation, that, at worst, the authorities would run our names against whatever new extradition list they had at the station and, not “nding them, send us on our way. But more and more people were being pulled out of the line; more of the men from the back room were coming out to “ip through visas and residency cards and passports. The counter to my right had become crowded, the man closest to me—twenty-something, German-looking, possibly Jewish—had a sheen of sweat on his face, and I wondered if I had the same. 

‘Monsieur?’ Suzanne eventually asked.

Porras smiled and held up three of the papers we’d given him. ‘I’m sorry, it’s these transit visas. There’s an issue with them now. All visas issued in Marseilles have been cancelled.’

‘Depuis quand?’ Suzanne asked. She looked toward the men who were still seated at their desks behind the partition as if she hoped that Marco, the man we’d asked for, might somehow be among them. ‘We were told—’

‘Yes, of course,’ Señor Porras shrugged, ‘if you’d arrived last week, two days ago . . .’ He raised his open palms toward his shoulders. ‘But there are new regulations effective yesterday.’ He smiled again so that we could see the spades of his teeth. ‘I’m afraid it’s not for Spain to decide.’ 

‘Might I speak with you in private?’ Suzanne asked. He laughed, aware that she planned to try to bribe him. There was money stitched into the lining of her dress for this very reason.

‘You can speak freely in front of my fellow citizens,’ he said, waving toward the clerk and the officer beside him and the men in the back, clearly enjoying this show of integrity.

‘May I see the man in charge of the station, then?’ Again Suzanne assumed the impatience of a person with rights.

‘He is not here today, either. Like Marco. I’m afraid I’m in charge at the moment.’

‘When will he be in?’

‘Tomorrow.’ Porras lifted a silver case from his jacket pocket and tipped a cigarette out of it. ‘Do you want to make an appointment with him?’ 

‘Yes, I do.’

‘Of course. I just need to know where you’ll be staying. In the meantime, I will keep these.’ Porras gathered our papers together and raised his eyebrows. Then he turned to the clerk behind him. He spoke to her quickly in Spanish and she turned and relayed his message to the men behind her, and one of the men in suits called out ‘Alejandro!’ 

The German-looking man beside me was still standing at the counter in his nice waterproof coat. The officer he’d been dealing with was consulting now with another officer in the back room. I had to resist the urge to tell him to make excuses: he forgot his bag on the train, his wife was unwell, he must have dropped a paper . . . he was young and strong-looking and I thought he could move quickly, could get way in the confusion. But he knew, and I knew, that such subterfuge was likely to cause more difficulty than adhering to whatever new rules the Vichy government had put in place. Even for people like us.

Suzanne turned to me and Bernard and smiled reassuringly. Bernard, his head low like a dying animal’s, scanned the room for the chair he needed. A minute later a young man in the grey-green uniform of the local cabos walked toward us.

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The Devil's Trick

The Devil's Trick

How Canada Fought the Vietnam War
edition:Hardcover
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Excerpt

INTRODUCTION

STORIES THAT MATTER

War is about sending our children to kill theirs. The devil’s trick is convincing leaders that war is desirable, the rest of us that it’s acceptable, and combatants that everything they are doing and seeing is normal or, at least, necessary.

Canada has always been a warrior state. It has fought or involved itself in war proudly, often reluctantly, and sometimes covertly. Some wars were noble pursuits and others just good business. Sometimes forgotten, and even at the time widely denied, is that among Canada’s wars was the Vietnam War, the slow-motion tragedy that revealed the devil’s trick at its wiliest.

There were Canadians in Vietnam fighting and dying in American uniforms; others were working in Canadian-run hospitals; and there were Canadian diplomats in Vietnam who tried to stop the war before it began, and then monitored its carnage. There were Canadian weapons in Vietnamese cities, villages, and jungles and falling from the sky. Back home, young Americans flooded north to escape the war, while Canadians were taking to the streets to urge lawmakers to stop it, or at least end Canada’s involvement. When the guns finally fell silent, if only for a while, more Canadian diplomats headed to Vietnam. Soon, thousands of desperate refugees fled postwar madness, many finding sanctuary in Canada. The war changed everything and everyone it touched. The war changed Canadians. It changed Canada.

One cannot fully comprehend the Vietnam War without understanding Canada’s role in it. One cannot fully understand Canada or the United States without considering the war’s lies and lessons. We deserve the truth, and we need the lessons, because the Vietnam War still echoes in the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, who we are not, and who we aspire to be.

We must begin by placing the war in its time. First, the war’s American phase and Canada’s involvement, from the mid-1950s to the late 1970s, occurred during a period of sweeping changes in Canada and the United States that challenged all that had been considered certain. A generation that had suffered the Depression and fought the Second World War and were finally enjoying peace and prosperity, were being confronted by attacks on unspoken rules. Those in defiance of all that was thought proper presented discomforting questions about who should be in charge and who should know their place; whether more people should share the benefits of good times; and even the relevance of material comfort. The Civil Rights and burgeoning Indigenous Rights movements were forcing re-evaluations of original sins. Quebec’s Quiet Revolution saw bombs killing innocents amid demands for Canada’s splintering or, at a minimum, a fundamental redefinition of nationhood. A youth quake, reflected in music, fashion, art, and attitude, and fuelled by the raw clout of baby-boom numbers was redefining social norms. The Women’s Movement’s Second Wave and the licence afforded by the newly invented birth control pill were slowly spurring changes from bedrooms to boardrooms.

As the war progressed through the sixties, its brutality was seen every night on the widely watched Canadian and American television evening news programs —along with police dogs ripping flesh, night sticks cracking heads, radicals throwing rocks at the prime minister, fires consuming buildings, the public murders of progressive leaders, protests in universities, and young men burning draft cards.

Within the broad context of so much challenge and change, the war united some families and divided others. It unified the movements and linked individuals in the streets with those privately hoping for change. In Canada and the United States, Vietnam became a symbol for all that was wrong and needed to be fixed or torn down. Until late in the war, Canadian and American political leaders and the business and media elites who supported it seemed wedded to the status quo. The power structures they represented became the ramparts to be breached by those wanting to replace the old with the new. Communities split as the elites drew support from those who felt that anti-war beliefs, the various movements, and all those long-haired kids were unpatriotic and dangerous.

Second, we must contextualize the war by recalling that it was part of the larger Cold War. In the Second World War the liberal West joined the communist Soviet Union to defeat the fascist Nazis. Even before Hitler shot out what was left of his brains, however, the alliance was crumbling. At the February 1945 Yalta Conference, Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union planned a postwar world with Soviets and Americans struggling for global dominance. With the war’s end, guns and money were sent to the competing sides in every nationalist movement, civil war, and crooked election. In August 1949 the Soviet Union successfully tested its first nuclear weapon. The West appeared to be no longer safe. Just two months later, a decades-long revolution ended with the formation of a communist government in China. The West appeared to be no longer winning.

In 1945 Igor Gouzenko, a young clerk working in Ottawa’s Soviet embassy, had defected and revealed there were communist spies operating in Western countries. In February 1950, American senator Joseph McCarthy began insisting that communists had infiltrated unions, the government, the military, and Hollywood. People were encouraged to see “reds” under every bed and to choose to be dead rather than red. Four months later, communist North Korea invaded the non-communist South, and Canada joined the American-led coalition to push it back. Meanwhile, books, comics, and movies told of alien invasions as tremendously popular cowboy movies and television shows spoke of taming frontiers— but they were all really about battling communists. Three strings of radar lines across Canada’s north watched for incoming Soviet bombers. Communities practised air raid drills, families built fallout shelters, and teachers taught children to hide under their desks in the faint hope that the thin bit of plywood would protect them from a nuclear onslaught.

The “Red Scare” led most Americans and Canadians to support more of their tax money being diverted to defence and more of their personal freedoms being ignored to weed out subversives. For a while, it also led a majority of Canadians and Americans to support the fighting of communists in Vietnam as parents tucked their children into bed each night knowing that either by design or accident, nuclear annihilation could be visited upon them before breakfast.

Finally, we must also consider the war from the Vietnamese perspective. The war’s roots can be traced back to 111 BCE, when an ethnic group called the Viet was conquered by China, leading to a centuries-long struggle for independence. In the 1600s Portuguese and then French missionaries began converting the region’s people to Christianity. In 1857 French ships arrived to support priests who were being mistreated by locals. Attacks on those ships led to an invasion and by 1897 the creation of French Indochina, composed of what later became Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Vietnamese nationalists attacked the French colonizers as they had the Chinese.

Ho Chi Minh was among a group of outspoken nationalists deported by the French in 1911. Ho’s thirty-year exile took him around the world, even to the United States, where he lived for a while in Boston and New York City. Ho was in Paris when world leaders assembled at Versailles to settle the recently ended First World War. American president Woodrow Wilson was promoting self-determination as a guiding principle of the postwar world, and Ho wrote to him asking that it be applied to Vietnam by having the French leave and his people granted self-rule. Wilson either did not see or ignored the plea. With America’s blessing, the French kept their colony. Ho travelled to the Soviet Union and China, where he studied, spoke, and wrote of the yoke of colonialism —and communism as a means to end it.

In September 1940, with France distracted by its defeat by Hitler, Japan took Vietnam as part of its territorial expansion. Four months later, by then in his mid-fifties, malarial, and frightfully thin, Ho returned home, with five comrades. It was at this time that he adopted the latest of several aliases —Ho Chi Minh, meaning “He Who Enlightens.” In May 1941 his small group merged with other nationalists to become the League for the Independence of Vietnam, the Vietminh. It was soon carrying out guerrilla actions against the Japanese. Ho contacted agents of America’s Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA, which supplied him with weapons and support. He worked briefly with OSS officer Lieutenant Colonel Paul Dewey, who in September 1945 was killed in an ambush, America’s first Vietnam casualty.

With the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan, Ho seized the moment, oversaw the abdication and exile of the puppet emperor Bao Dai and, on September 2, 1945, declared Vietnam a unified, independent state with himself as president. Before a cheering crowd at Hanoi’s Ba Dinh Square, he began his speech by quoting Thomas Jefferson in espousing the idea that he pledged would guide Vietnam’s new government: “All men are created equal; they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Weeks later, with the support of British troops and the tacit backing of American president Harry Truman, France overthrew Ho’s government and re-established its Indochinese colony. Ho negotiated with the French and some agreements were signed but, when it became clear that France would never allow genuine self-rule, Ho ignited a new guerilla war to win back his country. Understanding the power of Cold War alliances, he declared himself a communist and won Chinese and Soviet support.

In 1946 the United States gave $160 million to help the French in Indochina. In 1950, while also fighting in Korea, Truman declared that the United States would not allow the Vietminh to take Vietnam, arguing that its fall would eventually result in the entire region becoming communist. The first American Military Assistance and Advisory Group (MAAG) arrived in Vietnam in September with money, advisors, and weapons to augment French forces.

The conflict had thereby become a Vietnamese civil war, a nationalist war of liberation, a European colonial war, and a Cold War proxy war. By the end of 1952 the United States had sent $1 billion to support French efforts. Its funding rose annually, so that by 1953 it was paying 80 percent of the war’s escalating cost. Meanwhile, with 100,000 French troops in Vietnam and already having suffered over 50,000 casualties, the French peoples’ patience for the war was evaporating. And then came the turning point.

French general Henri Navarre had created a French fortress in a long, narrow valley in northwest Vietnam. Fifteen thousand young men dug in. The brilliant Vietminh general Vo Nguyen Giap, one of the handful of exiled nationalists who had returned to Vietnam with Ho back in 1941, moved fifty thousand troops to the surrounding hills. On March 13, 1954, his artillery began pounding the French at Dien Bien Phu.

The battle captured the world’s attention and certainly that of American president Dwight Eisenhower, who had publicly spoken of the danger of Vietnam becoming communist lest surrounding countries fell like dominos. Eisenhower was urged by the French and his own advisors to send help. His generals asked him to consider a nuclear strike. The president said no.

The nations involved in the recently suspended Korean War and the ongoing Indochinese War had agreed to meet in Geneva to settle both. On May 8, 1954, just as delegates were taking their places at the first plenary session, they received the startling news that the French had surrendered at Dien Bien Phu. The Geneva Conference, focused by the French defeat, led directly to Canada’s involvement in what became the war’s next phase.

In the pages that follow, six Canadians will act as our guides with their experiences leading us through the story of Canada’s Vietnam War. First is Canadian brigadier general Sherwood Lett, a decorated veteran of two world wars, who led the Canadian delegation that arrived in Vietnam shortly after the Geneva Conference, a decade before the landing of American troops. Lett and the Canadians risked their lives enforcing an unstable peace while wondering if they were stopping a war or merely acting as American lackeys and midwives to a new one.

With American battleships steaming across the Pacific, respected Canadian diplomat Blair Seaborn spirited himself to Hanoi for a clandestine meeting with North Vietnam’s prime minister. His top-secret reports presented Washington with a road map to peace with honour. If Seaborn could convince the Americans to see the vision of the future he was so clearly providing, those ships could turn around and the war could be stopped before it began.

Claire Culhane worked in a Canadian hospital in Vietnam. But, enraged by what she was seeing, she returned home ahead of schedule. Culhane confronted Canadians with the lies they were being told and all they were choosing to ignore about complicity with the CIA and arms sales to the Americans. She implored Canadians and their leaders to consider the morality of supporting what she declared an immoral war.

Joe Erickson was among the thirty thousand young Americans who evaded the war by heading north. Many Canadians welcomed or ignored the war resisters, while others smeared them as cowards, traitors, or part of the youth rebellion that threatened values they held dear. Canada commemorated its 100th birthday in 1967 with a world’s fair and a fresh wave of patriotism, while debates about immigration and the invasion of the un-American Americans such as Erickson forced them to consider exactly what they were celebrating.

Doug Carey was among the twenty thousand Canadians who headed the other way to fight in the war that so many his age were protesting against or fleeing. Carey and his fellow Canadians suffered the horrors of jungle warfare. Many died. Those who survived endured the long and dreadful struggles of emotional and physical recovery.

Rebecca Trinh and her family lived in a comfortable Saigon neighbourhood but, when the Americans left Vietnam and the communists took power, the family ran out of choices. They needed to run and risk their lives to save their lives. The Canadian government partnered with faith-based groups, grass-roots organizations, and passionate individuals in welcoming waves of desperate Indochinese refugees —even as some Canadians called for the door to be locked shut.

The stories of our six guides are not biographies but invitations. They urge us to consider the stories of many others who, together, tell us how Canada fought the Vietnam War and was changed by it. They remind us that as lives are shaped in great swirls of historical change, a nation’s grand story is written.

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Before My Time

Before My Time

A Memoir of Love and Fate
edition:Paperback
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Excerpt

PROLOGUE

In My Blood

One week after 9/11, I walk into a hospital in rural Indiana and ask a nurse to draw six vials of blood from my arm. I need to know what the future holds, at least my meagre part of it. I’m a healthy, thirty-three-year-old mother of two who can’t stop thinking about what tomorrow might bring.

A small TV perched on a filing cabinet in the nurse’s office is tuned to the morning news. A commentator with perfect hair and straight teeth stares at me from the screen. The crawl beneath her smiling face reads: IS THIS THE NEW NORMAL?

The nurse, prepping her kit, asks, “Will this make you squeamish?”

“No. I’ll just look away.”

I don’t. I watch every step of the procedure from start to finish—the elastic band pulling tight around my arm, the nurse’s fingers prodding for a vein, the slip of the needle into my skin, the steady flow of dark red blood into each tube as the nurse deftly swaps them, one after another—one, two, three, four, five, six. I’m looking to see if I can spot the ghosts in my blood.

Within the hour, the samples are shipped to a lab at a university in Nebraska. Researchers there will search for a genetic mutation in my DNA that predisposes me to developing several types of cancer. It’s a terrifying list. Colon. Endometrial. Ovarian. Stomach. Bile duct. Liver. Kidney. Pancreas. Upper urinary tract. Brain. Small intestine. Breast. Skin. The literature from the lab says: A far greater than average risk, at an earlier than average age. My uncle was diagnosed with his first cancer at twenty-six, my grandmother at fifty, her brother at forty-nine, her sister at forty-three, my mother at fifty-eight. Mom joked and said it was the first time in her life that she’d been a late bloomer. Cancer occurs so frequently in my family, it’s become a cruel rite of passage. The list of known initiates dates back to 1856.

The method the lab will use to test my blood is the latest in medical technology, but pathologists and geneticists have been studying my family for well over a century, working to make sense of a disease that’s haunted us for generations. We are the longest and most detailed cancer genealogy ever studied in the world. Science needs us as much as we need it.

Several months later, I have a phone conversation with Dr. Henry T. Lynch to get my results. He’s the chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Creighton University, head of the lab where my blood was tested, and the man for whom the cancer syndrome my family suffers from was named. He’s also someone my discerning, no-nonsense mother considers to be an honorary member of our family. In her estimation, “Henry’s a saint.”

After we exchange greetings, Dr. Lynch says, “I want to thank you and the members of your family for helping us all these years.”His voice is cheerful and grandfatherly, which makes for lovely chitchat,but it also makes his explanation about the implications of having Lynch syndrome strangely unnerving. “The lifetime risk forcertain cancers increases at an extraordinary rate compared to the general population, so having the mutation puts one in the category of what we call ‘accelerated carcinogenesis,’ that is, rapid evolution of cancer.” He tells me if I have the genetic marker, there’s an 85 percent chance I’ll get colon cancer in my lifetime and there’s nothing I can do to prevent it. No amount of meditation or healthy foods or exercise can stop it.

My stomach tightens. Even though I’ve known all those thingsfor quite some time, hearing it straight from Henry makes it seem new and alarming. Rapid evolution of cancer. And he hasn’t even gotten to my results.

We converse at length about my mom and my uncle and my grandmother,folding their cancer milestones into our small talk. It feels likecatching up with an old friend.

I mention other relatives, not by name but by their relationship tome, and their age at the onset of cancer—people who died long beforeI was born, people whose medical records Henry knows intimately.I need him to know that I, too, have a vast knowledge of their suffering.I’ve always been an A student. I want him to see how hard I’ve studied for a test that I can’t ace.

When he finally gets around to delivering the news, his voice cracks and falters. “Well, I really feel badly telling you this, but you did inherit the gene. You do have the mutation.”

There’s sympathy there, and heartbreak—his and mine.

“And now, by God,” he adds, “I want you to have a colonoscopy as soon as possible. I truly hope everything will turn out okay.”

“Thanks, Dr. Lynch. I’ll get on it right away.” Even though I’d told myself a hundred times over it would probably turn out this way, I’m completely devastated. I do my best not to cry as I listen to the rest of what he’s got to say.

“Just as the risk of developing colorectal cancer in your lifetime is extremely high, the same goes for endometrial cancer. I urge you to contact a doctor immediately if you experience any unusual pain or symptoms.” One by one he lists the annual screenings, tests, scopes and procedures I’ll require, along with prophylactic surgeries I should consider having, soon.

From this moment on, I’ll never “not know” again. I now live in an unsettling state between wellness and cancer. I am an unaffected carrier, a “previvor.” This is my new normal.

When science offered me the chance to glimpse my future, I took it.What it didn’t show me was how to live with what I saw. By the time I received my results, I’d witnessed the wreckage of cancer in my family several times over. I’d lost people I loved, admired and adored. How was I to cope with knowing that same fate lurks in my blood?

As a child, I listened to the women in my family tell stories of the past—grandmothers, aunts and cousins sitting around the kitchen table with my mother, sometimes laughing until they cried, sometimes sobbing through words of grief. They spoke of relatives who lived before I was born—people who came from nothing, who faced great hardship, who died too young. The women in those tales stared downdeath, looked after the sick, and conversed with fate. They spread thetruth through story, even when others didn’t wish to hear it.

This is how I learned that stories have power—to make sense ofthe world, to give voice to dreams, to nurture hope and banish fear.

What I didn’t know then was that those stories would provide me with what I need to navigate life with Lynch syndrome. Sometimes the best advice on how to live comes from listening to the dead.

I am now fifty.

My sons are young men.

My mother and the women who sat around her table are gone.This book is my attempt to keep their stories alive as I come toterms with what lies ahead.

Looking to the same place science has gone for answers—to my ancestors, my family, my blood—I wrote my way between their past and my present, chasing after lost voices in hopes of finding mine.

It was a journey that revealed truths shared across generations,and secrets hidden in stacks of worn journals and yellowed papers.Each discovery led to another, creating a twisted path of revelations that wound between old homesteads and graveyards; research laboratories and hospital archives; groundbreaking scientists and long-lost family. Every encounter brought new connections and stories, and with them came a new narrative of understanding.

The world is now a place where facts and information are at ourfingertips. Genomes are regularly sequenced to “find your heritage”or “understand your DNA.” Current research shows that one out ofevery 279 people has Lynch syndrome. Yet only 5 percent have been diagnosed. A simple spit test can determine a myriad of health concerns a person will likely need to address in their lifetime. A newera in medicine has arrived.

Information is power, science says. It saves lives.

Yes, absolutely it does.

And our stories keep us whole.

1. Not Yet.

Scots Bay, Nova Scotia, July 2017
I’m standing on the back porch of a seaside farmhouse, surrounded by friends. The evening breeze off the Bay of Fundy is cool and damp, but not unkind. It feels more like September than late July. Melancholy. Bittersweet. It’s my birthday—forty-nine.

A few of us lean against the lichen-checked railing while the rest of the guests mingle around a bonfire in the yard. The window above the kitchen sink is open, and I hear water running, someone washing dishes, clanking pots and pans. It’s my eldest son. “Don’t worry about that right now,” I tell him through the screen. “It can wait.” He gives me a goofy grin, pretends he can’t hear me. Later, the kitchen will be spotless, as if the party never happened. Happy birthday to me.

I stretch my arm out from under the roof of the porch and catch wet in the palm of my hand. It’s starting to rain but no one seems to mind. The bonfire hisses and cracks. My two old barn cats are curled on a faded lawn chair, tucked in a knot of mutual comfort. One, pale ginger, the other, tortoiseshell calico. Yin and Yang. Yin stretches, his claws grasping at nothing, then opens his mouth in a wide toothy yawn. Not a care in the world. Someone brings out a guitar and we porch dwellers start to sing Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide,” our voices courting coyote song as daylight fades. The lyrics catch me off guard, threaten to make me cry. Shit. I think. Forty-nine. The child in my heart doesn’t know if she can handle it.

My eldest brother was fifty.

My other brother was thirty-nine.

One of my cousins was thirty-seven.

Another, fifty-one.

Our generation hasn’t escaped cancer’s reach.

My husband takes my hand, gives it a gentle squeeze, leads meinto the house. “Time for cake.” He is my heart, my haven, my bestfriend. Later, when the house is silent and dark, he’ll still be at myside. I hope he can’t see the tears in my eyes.

A crowd of smiling faces gathers around me, laughing, singing,the kitchen awash with flickering candlelight. My big brother, the survivor, sings louder than the rest. Happy birthday, dear Ami . . . Myson sneaks a fingerful of frosting from the edge of the cake and givesme a sly wink. I scowl in fake disapproval, then do the same, on behalf of his little brother who’s away at summer camp. Family traditions mean everything.

Happy birthday to you . . .
Closing my eyes I blow out the candles, make a wish. It’s the same wish I’ve made every birthday for the past sixteen years, two simple words I hold in my heart: not yet.

To pretend cancer won’t ever come for me is a dangerous game.Yet somehow this annual ritual of asking it to wait seems reasonable and fair. Anticipating cancer is one thing, negotiating life as I wait for its arrival, another. Fear has become both enemy and friend. It can eat me alive. It can save my life.

I pray my bargain with fate will last another year.

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