"Emancipation Day" by Wayne Grady

When Navy musician Jackson Lewis takes the stage, everyone goes crazy.  With good looks reminiscent of Frank Sinatra, Jack is a wanted man.  While stationed in St. John's Newfoundland during World War II, he meets Vivian Clift, a nineteen-year-old who has never set foot off the Rock but wants to see what Canada and the world has to offer.  

Jack and Vivian fall in love and marry, but it's against her family's wishes.  She can't figure out why but there is something about him they don't like.  When the war ends, Vivian and Jack return to his hometown of Windsor, Ontario to meet his family.  But upon meeting his mother and brother, Vivian realizes that she doesn't know her new husband as well as she thought she did.  His life is nothing like he described and Jack's family all look different from each other.  In fact, they look different from anyone she has ever met.  

Emancipation Day by Wayne Grady is a moving and touching novel that looks at how far a man would go to belong and how far his family would go to let him.  Against the backdrop of jazz music and the second World War, this is a novel about love, family, sacrifice, secrets, and race.  

I don't even know where to begin to tell you how much I enjoyed this novel.  It's by no means an easy read but it's an important one when it comes to understanding history, especially civil rights and race relations in Canada.  It's very easy for us to think that because we don't have the same history as the United States that we have a clean one when it comes to race but the truth is far from it.  In fact, even in today's multicultural society, we still see a lot of the issues from the past that we still have not dealt with.

In the book, Jack Lewis is born to parents who at the time were considered "coloured."  But Jack favours the white side of his family, and to those who don't know his parents, he is considered white.  I can look up from my computer at my own family and see how generations of interracial mixing can result in children being born to the same parents but looking very different from each other.  In 2013, there is not much to say about that, but in the 1930's and 1940's when this book is set, it made a world of difference.

There is so much going on in this novel that pulls your heart everywhere.  Jack's desire to separate himself from his heritage, Vivian's naivety and the way that Jack keeps secrets from her, the riots that occur between Blacks and Whites in Detroit and how it spills over into Windsor, a father who is so incredibly hurt by his son but still loves and protects him - all this is so wonderfully written that you just don't want to put this book down.  And with a final sentence that will stay with you for a very long time, this first novel from Grady, already an accomplished non-fiction writer, is bound to be one of the most talked about of the year.

The story behind this book is also incredible.  When Grady began researching his family history, he was stunned to find out that his great-grandfather who immigrated to Windsor from Ireland wasn't actually Irish.  In fact, he wasn't even white.  No one in the family had ever discussed their Black American ancestor.  So he set out to write a book about it.  And it took him 18 years and 22 drafts to finish it.  

Emancipation Day is the highlight of my summer reading.  I will be recommending it for years to come.  The people and places leap off the page, a product of the beautiful writing, the story, and its teller.  I want to see this on the Giller list next month.

I received a copy of this book courtesy of Random House of Canada.  The opinions expressed above are purely my own.


  1. This sounds like a GREAT read! I just put it on my wish list :) Thanks for this review, I hadn't heard of this book before.

    1. I'm sure you will enjoy it, I'm glad that I was able to let you know about it!


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