Entertainment and Sports

Interesting Circles

Like movies or songs, some books stand out because of the experience we share with them. Some people, too.

By Kevin Somers
Published July 07, 2008

Life turns in interesting circles, sometimes. On Tuesday, June 10, I was invited to join the Women of Wisteria's (WOW) book club for a special evening: Lawrence Hill, author of The Book of Negroes, was attending.

The Book of Negroes is an international hit and Hill just won the Commonwealth Writer's Prize, so he's meeting the Queen soon. WOW are Burlington based book buddies, as is Mr. Hill, so he responded to an email and, despite being busy, agreed to attend one of their meetings. The Book of Negroes is a great book and a chance to meet the writer was an anticipated treat.

The evening didn't disappoint. Hill is an engaging speaker and the subsequent conversation was lively and thoughtful.

The Book of Negroes is told from the perspective of an African woman, Aminata Diallo, who is born a free girl in Africa, but at 11, is captured by slave traders. Her parents are killed in a battle for freedom (that still goes on).

Aminata's father, who realized what was happening when his family was set upon, is shot in the struggle. His last experience was men stealing his only child: so much for Rest in Peace.

Aminata endures the capture, the endless trek to the African shore, the ship to America, and every other cruelty humans can conceive. In one incident, she is chained and being marched through an American town, naked and filthy, as an 11 year old; the same age as my own modest, private, proud daughter.

It is Aminata who tells the story of The Book of Negroes and Hill, the father of five, gave the character his oldest daughter's name, making the writing experience more personal and profound. I liked the book and the character more after hearing that.

Like movies, songs, or people, some books stand out because of the experience we share with them. I had to put The Book of Negroes down regularly and walk away from it, usually to hug my kids. On a couple of occasions, I was afraid to pick it up again.

Lawrence Hill brings home the horror of truly free markets. There are, and always have been, people of every stripe who will commit any atrocity for a king's ransom or a few trinkets. It's a book I won't forget.

At the book club, Larry, as he asked to be called, spoke about the lonely endeavour of writing and his obsession with it, which was interesting. He also talked about the re-writes and study; the hard work of a historical novel.

There is a lot to learn from his well-researched book, which Hill emphasised in the discussion, as well. For example, Aminata is part of the massive exodus of former slaves back to Africa - from Canada to Sierra Leone - which was news to me and a lot of other Canadians. The Book of Negroes is a beautiful, sad, soaring story written around cold, hard facts.

The novel, which is titled Someone Knows My Name in the US, is a remarkable achievement. I hope the Queen appreciates her opportunity to meet Larry.

There's No Quit

The very next night, June 11, was just as good. I sat down with Jennifer Thomson, who has recently been accepted into medical school at McMaster University in Hamilton. The school receives about 5,000 applications, conducts 500 interviews, and, this year, selected 176 candidates to start in September. I'd bet Jen was amongst the least likely to climb the Everest required to get in.

Jennifer is married to my friend, Phil, and he has always kept me updated on his wife's remarkable achievements (two years ago, she ran her first marathon). In our conversation, I learned Jen went to several different schools and finished at an alternative high school.

Her father is incarcerated, so they're estranged, and Jennifer was raised by her mother. Along with her younger brother, they lived in subsidised housing in the east end of Hamilton, some of which was pretty rough.

Jen learned to make fast, good judgements, to take care of herself, and avoid bad predicaments. She's seen a lot and is remarkably honest. "When I was a teenager, I didn't graduate and I didn't care. Things pissed me off," she said.

She decided to go back to high school and one day representatives from Mac came and spoke about studying medicine at university. "That was so off the radar for me, then," she said with a laugh. "It was an impossible dream." She took a poster, however, and put it up in her bedroom. Then she started to dream. And work.

"I realised that everything was a blessing in disguise. It made me work harder."

Jen did well in high school and took nursing at Mohawk College because McMaster was too expensive. To help pay her way, she worked the bar at The Crazy Horse Saloon in downtown Hamilton. It is, without doubt, a rough, rough place. "There were prostitutes, crack pipes, and fights all the time," she said. At the end of her shifts, the attractive, petite girl would take the last bus back to Stoney Creek by herself.

After graduating from college, Jen worked at McMaster Hospital and attended Nursing courses at McMaster University; both fulltime. She took up marathon running, as well. Obviously, Jen did everything well because, in five short years, she'll become a doctor. (The screening process is thorough and the dropout rate is miniscule. Besides, there's no quit in Jen.)

When she got the acceptance email, Jennifer was in shock. She said, "It was the craziest feeling. It was a surreal experience. I felt so lucky." All her hard work and good habits had paid off.

Along the way she's learned a few things. "It is such a blessing to go to University," she said. Money is suddenly easier to come by. Banks, which had had Jen and Phil on a very short lease are suddenly throwing money at them. "And they're polite."

Jennifer is determined to continue using her superpowers wisely. "I want to go back to my old neighbourhood and help people," she said. "We failed those kids, the ones who are in gangs and selling drugs."

She recognises where she's going and the responsibilities she's taking on, too. "Doctors have a voice. People listen to doctors." People she knows, need schools, and choices, and hope. Dr. Jennifer Thomson will be a great voice for people who need one.

Jen and Phil have a large photo of Tank Man; erect and proud, stopping armoured bulldozers with his will and shopping bags, on their living room wall. "It's my favourite picture," she said.

As I was leaving, they gave me a copy of their favourite book, A Long Way Gone; Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, by Ishmael Beah. It's an inspiring story about a young man who overcomes every obstacle life puts in his path and, by example, is a beacon of hope.

He's from Sierra Leone and that brought to mind the slave trade, which made me think of Aminata, who Jen reminds me of, both of whom also inspire hope.

Life turns in interesting circles, sometimes.

Kevin Somers is a Hamilton writer.

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