Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Any Known Blood

Langston Cane V, the engaging protagonist of Lawrence Hill's second novel, is a man who feels he has failed a glorious heritage. He can look back over generations of black clergymen and doctors to the original Langston Cane, who escaped slavery in Virginia by fleeing to Oakville, Ont., before the American Civil War. Langston Cane V, however, is a deeply unhappy underachiever, a hack speech writer for the Ontario Ministry of Wellness serving a Mike Harris-like government he despises. Compounding the oppressive weight of family tradition is the fact that his mother is white, and Cane looks so ethnically indistinct as to confuse affirmative action officials and race-baiters alike. In a world where almost everyone Cane encounters catalogues themselves and others by race, sex and class origins, Cane is a lost man.

It is Hill's subtle treatment of the contemporary obsession with group identity that gives Any Known Blood its power. (The title is taken from antebellum Southern law codes conferring Negro status on anyone with even the smallest trace of African heritage.) But Cane is not interested in attaching himself to any larger group. He does not care that his black relatives find him a little "washed-out" for their taste, and he seems to have no contact at all with the white side of his family, other than his mother. Instead, he believes that the key to his own individuality lies in his family's past

As Hill's finely written, satirical novel opens, Cane is newly divorced and estranged from his overbearing father, who is hostile to his interest in the family saga. He is also thoroughly frustrated with his job -- a position he secured through government employment equity policy by claiming to be Algerian. Galvanized by a secret cabinet proposal to dismantle the province's human rights legislation, Cane sabotages a routine speech by his minister -- known to the writing staff as Pilot for his unswerving adherence to whatever text he was presented with -- by inserting a short denunciation of the plan.

After both the minister and Cane are fired, he returns to Oakville for one last try at gaining his father's support. But Lanston IV carries on as normal and, in one of Hill's loveliest phrases, "my soul walked out the back door of the house." Langston V heads for Baltimore and the home of his Aunt Mill, keeper of the family archives.

And what a story those papers provide. Hill, a creative writing instructor at Ryerson Polytechnic University in Toronto, drew on the history of his own prominent black family Any Known Blood -- his sociologist father was a chairman of Ontario's Human Rights Commission and the author of several black history works, while his brother is musician Dan Hill. The author traces Cane's family tree, starting with his parents' lives, back to the ancestor who has always been the centre of his obsession: the fugitive slave who, with abolitionist John Brown, left the safety of Oakville in 1859 to join the raid on Harpers Ferry, W. Va. Any Known Blood illuminates 150 years of little-known black experience on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border. At the same time, Hill's characters remain deeply realized creations who exert a strong imaginative pull.

From Cane's parents' postwar struggle with Canada's genteel but very real discrimination through his grandparents' difficult courtship and his great-grandfather's horrible childhood, Hill offers nuanced descriptions without a trace of bitterness. The details of their lives are often wretched, sometimes terrifying -- from the daily humiliations of segregation to a fiery cross from the Ku Klux Klan -- but Hill never sanctifies Cane's ancestors nor demonizes their white contemporaries. Quaker abolitionists are given their due, while the ironies of black prejudice are laid bare. Cane's grandparents were almost forced apart by, of all things, religious bias (she was Catholic, he was Methodist), and Langston IV, so quick to denounce any racial slight is consumed by a secret dread that his younger son, Sean, is gay.

Interspersed with the story of the generations is Cane's daily life in Baltimore as he chases down the leads provided by his aunt's papers. The novel's funniest portions describe his interactions with another outsider, Yoyo, a refugee from Cameroon. Yoyo cannot comprehend Americans' consuming interest in race, and scarcely finds any difference between whites and blacks in matters that interest him. North American slovenliness, for instance, leaves him astonished, especially given the cleansers that Yoyo marvels at -- this incredible American product called Javex and another called Windex."

The paper trail eventually leads Cane to a hidden autobiographical sketch by the original Langston. The document alters the prevailing family myth but more important his great-great-grandson, it includes an eerily familiar self-portrait that finally reconciles to his family and to himself. At once a satiric look at tribal identity and an absorbing family saga, Any Known Blood is ultimately a moving novel of self-discovery.

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