by Leo McKay Jr.
ISBN: 0771054750

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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 the crematorium."

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 a place.
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 falters.
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 past.
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.

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