Friday, December 9, 2011

The Secret Mitzvah of Lucio Burke by Steven Hayward

The first time I visited Toronto as an adult, without my parents, was about four years ago. My good friend Matt was living here at the time, in a house on the edge of Christie Pits. He met me and the friend I was traveling with at Christie Station and we walked through the park, down into the pit and up the other side. It was February then and so it was difficult to get an idea of the park, but Matt pointed out where everything would be when the snow cleared: the playground, the community garden, the baseball diamond. He told us about the riot on the baseball field that had happened in the summer of 1933; anti-Semitic rabble rousers had showed up to a baseball game with a Swastika flag, and the largely Jewish audience and roster confronted them, the fight spilling out on to Bloor Street.

I already felt a sort of personal connection then, however distant, with this book when I picked it up, because it deals with that same riot, building a large and detailed history around it so that the baseball game itself doesn't start until about 20 pages before the end of the book. The story itself follows a few of the key players through a few days in their ordinary lives in Toronto, 1933. Ruthie the Commie, an amazing and impressively written character, who knows that her looks keep her in employment at the fur store and struggles with the ethical dilemma of living as someone who benefits immensely from capitalism and the beauty standard, while trying to organize a walk-out among the wage slaves of the Spadina sweatshops. Lucio Burke, a not-quite-Italian, not-quite-anything-else teenager who is in love with Ruthie, and whose longing to belong somewhere is maybe the most pervasive unarticulated theme of any novel I've read. Dubie Diamond, obsessed with Darwin, who cuts off his own finger to speed up his evolution.

Obviously this is a character-driven story, and sometimes I found it a bit difficult to keep up; most of the time the author deals with three generations of each family, and there are lots of backstories and histories interspersed throughout the narrative, so at some points I kind of lost track of who was related to whom. I should have made myself a chart.

What I loved so much about this novel was the way Hayward covers so many issues without even mentioning most of them. This book deals with themes of race, war, politics, power, democracy, adolescence, belonging, family, religion, faith, immigration, mortality and multiculturalism, but I didn't actually realize it until I had put it down. I have never read an author who can so expertly grapple with heavy subjects without letting the story slip away from him. I wasn't spellbound throughout, but I was never bored, and I never felt preached to.

This is another book that puts Toronto front and centre - it literally could not have been set anywhere else. I was glad to read it now because the Toronto of the 1930s is not something I am familiar with at all, and it was cool to read about the garment workers of Spadina, the knife salesmen in the St. Lawrence Market, and the old College streetcar. Most of the characters live on Beverly Street (one of them buys a house there for $500 cash!) and a couple live on Clinton Street at College (Little Italy seems to be a popular place to set Toronto stories). Of course Christie Pits plays a big role, especially near the end, and there is a big baseball scene set at Withrow Park - which I read on the streetcar just as the robotic voice announced: "Next stop, Withrow Avenue.". The story definitely has a very Toronto flavour, and it was fascinating to see the struggles of early multiculturalism, as well as many burgeoning movements like Communism and (I think I saw it!) feminism.

In case it isn't clear, I adored this book. I highly recommend it to anyone who loves a good story, but especially to those interested in the everyday life of Jewish and Italian immigrants in 1930s Toronto. I promise you won't be disappointed.

Four CN Towers out of five.

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