Emancipation Day

Emancipation Day

by Wayne Grady


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"Grady's novel reads with the velvety tempo of the jazz music of its day. . . . Grady fearlessly explores heated race relations and the masks we all assume." —Chatelaine

With his curly black hair and his wicked grin, everyone swoons and thinks of Frank Sinatra when Navy musician Jackson Lewis takes the stage. It's World War II, and while stationed in St. John's, Newfoundland, Jack meets the well-heeled Vivian Clift, a local girl who has never stepped off the Rock and longs to see the world. They marry against Vivian's family's wishes—there's something about Jack that they just don't like—and as the war draws to a close, the couple travels to Windsor to meet Jack's family.

But when Vivian meets Jack's mother and brother, everything she thought she knew about her husband gets called into question. They don't live in the dream home Jack depicted, they all look different from one another—different from anyone Vivian has ever seen—and after weeks of waiting to meet Jack's father, he never materializes.

Steeped in jazz and big-band music, spanning pre- and post-war Windsor-Detroit, St. John's, Newfoundland, and 1950s Toronto, this is an arresting, heartwrenching novel about fathers and sons, love and sacrifice, race relations and a time in our history when the world was on the cusp of momentous change.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385677684
Publisher: Doubleday Canada
Publication date: 11/04/2014
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

WAYNE GRADY is the award-winning author of more than a dozen works of nonfiction and is also one of Canada's top literary translators. He is also the author of two novels, Up From Freedom and Emancipation Day, a national bestseller that won the 2013 Amazon.ca First Novel Award and was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Grady lives in Kingston, Ontario, with his wife, the novelist and creative nonfiction writer, Merilyn Simonds.

Reading Group Guide

1. Why do you think Wayne Grady chose William Henry, Jack and Vivian as the narrators? Would you have chosen someone else?

2. What are your thoughts on Jack’s character? Did you sympathize with his plight, with his cool nature, or were you repelled by it?

3. Throughout their courtship and marriage in St. John’s, Jack never reveals to Vivian his African-American heritage. Why do you think this is? Does Jack consider himself to be “passing” as a white person, or does he honestly believe he is white? 

4. The novel is predicated on racism, denial, and willful misunderstandings. Jack never admits to being black. Not even to himself. William Henry is as ashamed of his fair-skinned son as Jack is of his true racial background. The exploration of what race is and the influence of family is thought provoking. Discuss.

5. Have you ever denied or lied about anything to do with your heritage to get ahead? Have you ever reinvented yourself?

6. What were the advantages that came to Jack as a result of taking on a white identity?

7. Why do you suppose Vivian doesn’t pointedly question the increasingly elaborate excuses Jack offers for why she still hasn’t met William Henry? Why does she want to love a man who she suspects is a liar?

8. Do you find it believable that Vivian would fall in love with Jack? And that she would stay with him when she begins to suspect his treachery?

9. How much did you know about the history of World War II in Canada and the Battle of the Atlantic before you read this book? Are you compelled to read more about the era?

10. The tone, the timbre and the pacing of the novel are steeped in music. What kind of a role did jazz and big band play in the lives of the characters and their identities (Jack and Peter, in particular)?

11. Vivian and Della are strikingly different women but are both archetypes of their era. On page 54 Vivian says that, “You can’t belong to a thing you belong to a place.” How do you think the places they “belong” to shaped them as individuals?

12. Two events precipitate Jack’s joining the Navy. The Detroit Riot and his brief affair and subsequent rejection by Della Barnes. Which of the two events was the more significant, from Jack’s point of view? And how are they related?

13. How did the issue of race play out differently in Windsor during this era that it may have in other parts of Canada?

14. Discuss the gravity of the first sentence, the importance of name, and the implications of the last sentence.

15. The novel takes place more than a century after the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 ended slavery in the British Empire. Discuss the blatant and subtle ways Grady shows that racism and racial tensions still existed in Canada.

16. Have you read any of Wayne Grady’s non-fiction works? Can you see a similarity in writing styles, especially considering this novel is loosely based on his family history?

17. What is the significance of the title, Emancipation Day? Who, by the end the novel, is emancipated? 

18. What did you take away from this novel?

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