Wayne Grady – former magazine writer and editor, author of 14 non-fiction titles, Governor General’s Literary Award–winning translator, and editor of numerous anthologies of both fiction and non-fiction – is not exactly new to the scene. It may seem surprising, then, that he has turned to fiction at this stage in his career.
Twenty years ago, Grady (who was born and raised in Windsor, Ontario) was killing time in a library and decided to look up his ancestors in the census. He discovered that his father, who had always claimed the family was of Irish descent, was actually a black man with light enough complexion to “pass” for white.
Emancipation Day is the fictional account, inspired by Grady’s father, of a man’s self-directed journey from being the son of a poor, black, alcoholic plasterer to an apparent white man married to a well-off girl (inspired by Grady’s mother) from Newfoundland. Though the bulk of the story centres on Jackson Lewis and Vivian Fanshawe, the novel alternates between chapters focused on those two characters and Jackson’s father, William Henry. Grady uses William in a clever manner, peppering his story with details that provide the reader with ample context, both in the specifics of Jack’s family history and the prevailing attitudes of the time (the 1940s and early ’50s) regarding race and social standing.
When we meet Jack, he is an 18-year-old navy musician, a brash showman who closely resembles a young Frank Sinatra (minus the famous blue eyes). Jack is stationed in St. John’s, where he and a few friends have formed a jazz band that plays at dances held around town. It is after one of these dances that Jack meets Vivian, whom he somewhat facetiously dubs “Lily White” because of her pale skin.
From the outset, it is difficult to understand why these two people are together. Vivian is taken with Jack, but he hardly sweeps her off her feet. She repeatedly describes him as “cold” and like a little boy who seems “lost.” Jack, meanwhile, never really seems that interested in or comfortable with her despite their supposed closeness. Even the steady progression of their partnership does nothing to dispel Vivian’s feelings of being kept at arm’s length: “When they weren’t making love he was distant from her, reserved as though their whole relationship, not just the sexual part of it, were a secret to be kept from everyone.”
Jack is evasive about his own family, and resentful of Vivian’s. Her sister, Iris, obviously doesn’t approve of him, telling Vivian that he’s coarse, just a sailor, a musician who performs for a living, and “all surface.”
Therein lies the problem: he is all surface. Grady, perhaps shying away from delving too deeply into his father’s life, fails to reach down to the marrow of his character. The novel shows us Jack’s unease, how he lives in constant fear of someone discovering that he is not the white man he’s passing himself off as (and truly believes himself to be). The reader, too, is kept at a distance, an observer, not party to Jack’s experience in any visceral way.
Throughout, much is made of Jack’s reluctance to introduce Vivian to his family, but, when she does meet them, there is no earth-shattering reaction. On the initial visit, she meets Jack’s brother, Benny, his mother, and his sister, all of whom are also light-skinned enough (bearing what Jack refers to as “Windsor tans”) that Vivian doesn’t figure out what the big secret is. It is only on a subsequent trip, when a now-pregnant Vivian finally sees William, that she realizes what Jack has been keeping from her. Even then, her reaction is surprising – no outrage at being deceived, no knee-jerk descent into racism, just fear for the child she carries and the struggles his biracial heritage might have in store for him.
Despite the book’s flaws, there’s no denying that Grady has a way with words. The rhythm of the characters’ speech and inner monologues deftly evoke the story’s time and place, and the voices are distinct, adding much-needed dimension. Colloquialisms are scattered throughout, bringing a jocular personality to the narrative. While Grady doesn’t quite succeed in imbuing his text with the kind of dizzy intensity required of a book purporting to be “steeped in jazz,” there is a hard-hitting musicality to his writing. At one point Jack describes Vivian as a “real tease,” saying: “Her eyes tell me yes, yes, yes, but her knees tell me no, no, no.”
Ultimately, Grady has taken a very personal story and created a typical family drama – incorporating intergenerational tension, questions of identity and belonging, disappointment in relationships, and a lack of understanding and acceptance – rescued from its imperfections by his insouciant prose.