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Note from the Editor
by Olga Stein

I'm pleased to present this year-end issue of Books in Canada. As the cover indicates, this issue is stacked with superlative reviews of a number of this year's hottest works of fiction. Among these is Cindy MacKenzie's excellent treatment of Richard B. Wright's Clara Callan, a story that follows the divergent lives of two sisters, and this year's winner, remarkably, of both the Giller prize and Governor's General Award. "Through his natural, fluent and unfailingly 'female prose'," writes MacKenzie, "Wright creates two very different women: the worldly Norałpretty, self-possessed, with a bent for the theatrical, and the philosophical Clarała small-town (Whitfield, Ontario) spinster/teacher who exemplifies the expression 'still waters run deep.'"

Among those not mentioned on the cover are reviews of the long-awaited Henderson's Spear by Ronald Wright, Beth Follet's successful fiction debut Tell it Slant, and the moving narrative of a freed slave, Broken Shackles: Old Man Henson From Slavery to Freedom (edited by Peter Meyler), reviewed and discussed by George Elliott Clarke. "The primary source of Broken Shackles," Clarke tells us, "is a long-lived, long-suffering, indomitable, resourceful, and faith-full ex-slave whose narrative opens with the kidnapping of his maternal grandmother, Chandesia, from the Bagirmi people, whose nation is now part of Chad, in West Africa, sometime about the mid-eighteenth-century, and ends with Henson 'fairly revell[ing] in the consciousness of an untrammeled liberty beneath a Canadian sky.'" Broken Shackles provides a fascinating account of a man born into slavery, who escapes and settles in Canada. The text is undoubtedly a celebration of Henson's life, and a superb example of a record that adds historical concreteness to the African American slave experience.

Broken Shackles works as a counterpoint to Dionne Brand's Map to the Door of No Return. Beautifully reviewed by Gloria Hilderbrandt, Brand's latest is about family history that is interrupted, irretrievably lost, the absence or lack of which continues to haunt the living descendants of Africans kidnapped and forced into slavery in America. A Map to the Door of No Return consists of ruminations, vignettes, and the effort to come to terms with identity rendered incomplete in the present because of a missing 'past'. Brand writes of North America: "The place where all names were forgotten and all beginnings recast. In some desolate sense it was the creation place of Blacks in the New World Diaspora at the same time that it signified the end of traceable beginnings." An undeniable poignancy permeates both Broken Shackles and Map to the Door of No Return: While Brandt is moved to write her book because she's cut off from a 'past', Broken Shackles, according to Clarke, "ends bittersweetly, with Henson free, but also separated, still, from his wife"; without a wife and without progeny, Henson is cut off from a future. Thus, the enslavement of a people in America reaches back and forth through time to deprive, diminish and dematerialize generation after generation.

In a feature section, Sherrill Grace, professor and Head of English at the University of British Columbia, reviews five books on Canada's north. The books are very different, but each is significant in its portrayal of indigenous northern Canadians, their way of life, history and art, and, ultimately, in the instructive view each of the books affords us 'southerners' of the 'Other'. Grace writes of Hugh Brody's The Other Side of Eden: Hunters, Farmers and the Shaping of the World: "..an understanding of his Other, whether Inuit, Dene, or Innu, has taught him not only about them but about himself, about the destructive dominant culture he represents, and about how urgently we must change ourselves." Not every book Grace has selected is thematically arranged around the 'South' and 'North'/'us' and 'them' divide. Ansgar Walk's Kenojuak, an Inuk artist's biography, is about that universally-appealing subject, the artist and her art. Art and artist transcend racial and political differences and hold an altogether other place in our collective imagination precisely because art is more about the imagination than about calculations of who is better or worse off in a particular set of relationships. On the cover of this issue is an image of the Sea Goddess, reproduced from David F. Pelly's Sacred Hunt: A Portrait of the Relationship between Seals and Inuit (Greystone Books). This wonderful book is full of archival photos, stories of seal hunting, and images of Inuit sculpture, painting and prints. The Sea Goddess is but one example of the marvellous artwork based on myths and legends, themselves testaments to the centrality of the seal hunt in traditional Inuit life.

The editor can be reached at: olga.stein@sympatico.ca


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