||A Review of: Twenty-Six
by Craig MacBride
The book is dedicated to memories; that is the first thing a reader
should know. The second thing to know is that death is the first
word in the novel, and, nearly 400 pages later, life is the final
word. Twenty-Six, like the axis on which its stories revolve, is a
neat package, with death leading to an understanding of life.
Bordering on clich? Perhaps, and yet the journey to that understanding
is powerful, well plotted, and sometimes terribly, tragically funny.
The novel is split into five parts-1988, 1982, 1988, 1987 and
1989-and it is bound by one event, an explosion in a coalmine that
kills 26 miners. Arvel Burrows is one of the 26, and it is his
family that Leo McKay Jr. puts on display for us, following them
around and digging into them to see what Arvel's death means for
them, and, in turn, what meaning their lives have.
Ziv Burrows is Arvel's younger brother. He's an angry young man who
wants to rise above the modest aspirations of the mining community
of Albion Mines but is held back by his limited self-esteem. He's
24 years old in 1988, works at Zellers and lives with his parents
in the Red Row, a section in Albion Mines, Nova Scotia, made up of
company houses which continue to stand long after the retreat of
the company that built them.
"When you stood back from this place you could see the marks,
like looking at the rings of a stump: the growth, the stunted growth,
the decay, the resuscitation. Albion Mines was not so much a ghost
as an exhumed corpse, a half-charred body pulled prematurely from
Ziv is the driving force of the novel, and it is through his young
eyes that we see the desperation and hopelessness which makes
possible the continued exploitation of workers, as well as the
desperation and frustration which results from being raised in such
It is the mining accident, based on the Westray mining disaster of
1992, that jolts the people of Albion Mines out of their stupor,
and gives them something to fight other than one another.
Ennis, Arvel and Ziv's father, is the best example of this. A union
organizer back in his heyday, born with a collar bluer than a perfect
summer sky, Ennis collects newspaper clippings relating to the
disaster compulsively and attends meetings with other family members
of victims. The group tries to bring the mine's executives to
justice, but success appears unlikely. Ennis's faith in the system
McKay's restraint makes this novel great. Twenty-Six is a book about
death, disaster, fading youth and lost love, yet there is hardly a
watery passage. Like his male characters, the writing is tough with
a touch of vulnerability. This seems to be the book that McKay
wanted to write when he began instead with the short stories in
Like This, for which he was nominated for the Giller in 1995. Both
books are about troubled lives in a troubled part of Nova Scotia.
Twenty-Six is beautifully layered. Its narrators make the claim
that they are different from everyone else in the town, while McKay
subtly subverts the claim by showing just how similar they are-in
their mourning and their longing for a better life and a cleaner
Twenty-Six is full of dark humour stemming from the fact that it
is about a place where "the myth and the lore of the Pictou
County coalfieldwas about nothing if it was not about injury,
perilous danger, and violent death." When Ziv, who is offered
a job at the mine at the same time as his brother Arvel, decides
to remain at his post in Zellers, he remarks, "At least I'm
qualified to work at Zellers, and Zellers has never blown up."
In Twenty-Six, McKay has immortalized the memories of the Westray
mining disaster, writing out the memories for those who were not
there and those who cannot fathom the effect of a mining disaster
on a small town-any small mining town.