CanLit Review: Emancipation Day

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House Canada in exchange for an honest review.

You guys, I’m getting so much better at this reading CanLit thing. I recently read Wayne Grady’s Emancipation Day and guess what? I really liked it. I might even have loved it.


Emancipation Day tells the story of Jackson “Jack” Lewis though his eyes, the eyes of his wife Vivian and his father, William Henry. During the war, Jack Lewis enlists in the Navy as a musician, meaning he won’t have to actually see any action, he will just play the sailors onto the boats as they go to fight. He is stationed in Newfoundland, allowing him to leave his family in Windsor.

It seems like a fairly straightforward war love story at first. He meets Vivian out at a bar one evening and walks her home. He plans on seeing her again that week but he gets shipped out – apparently once every six weeks the naval band has to go out on a ship. Jack suffers from terrible seasickness so he doesn’t have to go out again. When he gets back to dry land, he finds Vivian and they take up where they left off.

Vivian’s family is quite wealthy – her father owns a series of stores in the area. Vivian is living with her older sister and her family who do not approve of Jack. There’s something about him that they don’t trust. But Vivian is blinded by her infatuation with this handsome, talented young stranger and she doesn’t listen.

When the war ends, Jack is headed back to Windsor. Vivian is keen to meet her new family and start their lives together. Only, the closer they get to home, the more closed off Jack seems to become. He rarely talked about his family to begin with and Vivian really doesn’t know very much about them.

Emancipation Day illustrates the harsh and sad reality of the one-drop rule and leaves Jack unable to create his own identity. He is handcuffed to a legal definition of his personhood. His family identifies as black but he goes out into the world as white. Their different understandings of race leaves a very wide gap between Jack and his father, one that is never quite broached. The same can be said for Vivian and Jack; Vivian is left to work out the big family secret on her own and Jack is angry at her for not knowing it right away even though he prefers to go through life as a white man.

I think I was shocked at how bad it still was in Canada for blacks at the time. The Lewis family is totally ghettoized by the colour of their skin. The use of the N-word is prevalent by white people and William Henry has no qualms about sending out Jack to get work, knowing that most folks are more willing to do business with someone they perceive as white. I guess we hadn’t come so far since the Underground Railroad.

There were points, early in the novel, where I wasn’t sure about this book. Mainly the time on the boat, filled with naval terms and details of navy life. I found my mind wandering through those bits, hoping to get back to the meat of the story. But the rest of it, I loved. I loved the different perspectives on the same story, the kind of seedy underground that Jack is simultaneously drawn to as a musician, that disgust him as a white man, the historical details of the time and place.

The ending made me wonder if this book wasn’t the history of Grady’s own family. The afterword made me certain. In it, Grady mentions that he originally tried writing an epic family history going back five generations until someone suggested this version to him. I can’t imagine handling my own complex family history like this, with honesty and grace. Emancipation Day is an incredible portrait of a family trying to find their place in the world, shackled by society’s definitions of race.