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December 1, 2011

Big Town: A Novel of Africville by Stephens Gerard Malone

I read Stephens Gerard Malone’s Big Town: A Novel of Africville this week as the story of the crisis of Attawapkiskat unfolded in the media, and each story so illuminated the other. The story of a Canadian community whose people live in unheated shacks with no running water, with no access to safe drinking water. A community of people treated as second-class citizens by the rest of the world– Malone writes about how hydro lines were down, Africville was always the last place the electric company came to, and usually when you called the police, they never came at all. A community for which the outside world purports to know what’s best, applying simple solutions to complicated problems, solving exactly nothing, and never mind all that gets lost.

Africville was a black settlement outside of Halifax Nova Scotia, razed during the 1960s by the city for reasons of public health and progress. Malone situates his novel in the community’s dying days, showing that social order had broken down by this time, as it had in so many communities during that turbulent decade. Africville had become conspicuous by its proximity to the town dump, and to the unsavoury characters attracted to its fringes,  like Early Okander’s father.

However, Early himself, who is white, a white simple-minded teenager devoted to his young friend Toby, is embraced by the community, and cared for by its residents all the while his father beats him and prostitutes him to his poker buddies on Saturday nights. In contrast to the trailer where Early and his father lives, Toby’s home with his grandfather Aubrey is a domestic oasis, supplied with nourishing food by neighbouring Mrs. Aada who owns the local store, and the company of other neighbours who remember a better time when the community was strong and thriving. It is as a testament to this better time that Aubrey is building a concert hall out of used bottles as a performance space for the Miss Portia White, the world famous singer who’d once lived in Africville and who, according to Aubrey, would be making a pilgrimage home now any day to help restore the community to its former glory.

The novel is meant to be told from Early’s perspective, though Malone refrains from the Faulkner-esque challenge of letting such a limited perspective wholly take over. Which makes Big Town a less challenging read, albeit one less narratively interesting. Malone plays with the ambiguity of Early’s point of view at times, but never so ambitiously, and the read between the lines is more obvious than it would like to be.

In many ways, Malone’s novel has more in common with a book like To Kill a Mockingbird, complete with its own Scout Finch in Early and Toby’s friend Chub, a girl who wants to be a boy and cuts her own hair with paper scissors. Though the story being filtered through the children’s point of view lacks the weight and nuance of To Kill a Mockingbird, however much that’s a high standard to hold any book to. The bleakness is also unrelenting– both Toby and Chub engage in self-harm, Aubrey is battling his own demons, Early’s father’s acts of violence against him are devastating; whither art thou, Atticus Finch?

Though that Malone proposes no saviour is wholly understandable, because certainly Africville never managed to be saved. And though at times I felt that the children’s perspectives were so limited as to simplify the story behind them, that story held fast my attention. Malone has made vivid a time and place thought lost to history, broadening the range of stories that we call Canadian.

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