Twenty Six (M) by Leo McKay Jr. is on all our minds here at The Reader this month. The One Book Nova Scotia selection was carefully chosen to encourage a reading culture in Nova Scotia and to contribute towards social interaction based upon a shared reading experience. Twenty Six is a brilliant choice as it centers around an event that impacted all Nova Scotians on some level.
May 9th, 1992 became one of those significant dates in our collective history when methane gas and coal dust explosions killed 26 miners. McKay bases his account in the 1980's in the fictional town of Albion Mines. This is not a disaster story with dramatic rescue attempts; it is the story of one family with a long history in mining who suffer a terrible loss.
Ziv Burrows has the makings of an ideal university student. University awakened in him a passion for ideas that he never knew existed. It wasn't to be and he returned to Albion Mines and joined his brother in new jobs at the mine. Ziv's job was below ground and he knew in minutes that he couldn't cut it as a miner. He took a job at Zellers and brother Arvel took his place underground. Sometimes in families destructive behaviours pass from generation to generation. Their father, Ennis Burrows, was a self-made man with an eighth grade education. He was hard working, hard drinking and a man of passion and strongly held beliefs. He failed to understand what was possible and appropriate for him in the 1950s might not work for young men in the 1980s. Real men get real jobs and he pressured Arvel to take the job at the mine and support his family like a man. Experienced miners knew there was danger, but they weren't hired. The miners went to work everyday with the knowledge of the danger, but optimism, naivete or desperation propelled them along until the imagined, yet unimaginable, happened.
In Twenty Six the tone is understated, but the story is monumental. And that, I think, may be what Leo McKay was intending - a monument to the lost miners. The book begins with the word Death and winds its way back and forth through time ending with the word Life, asking the question, and maybe in part answering it, how do we get from one to the other - from Death back to Life.
I remember hearing about Westray on May 9th 1992 and was saddened, but, frankly, I lived in a different province and it was mere days before I was to be married. My Westray, and I think everyone has one, is the Ocean Ranger Disaster and my choice for conversation would be Lisa Moore's February. (M)
"In 1982, the oil rig Ocean Ranger sank off the coast of Newfoundland during a Valentine's Day storm. All eighty-four men aboard died. February is the story of Helen O'Mara, one of those left behind when her husband, Cal, drowns on the rig. It begins in the present-day, more than twenty-five years later, but spirals back again and again to the "February" that persists in Helen's mind and heart. Writing at the peak of her form, her steadfast refusal to sentimentalize coupled with an almost shocking ability to render the precise details of her characters' physical and emotional worlds, Lisa Moore gives us her strongest work yet. Here is a novel about complex love and cauterizing grief, about past and present and how memory knits them together, about a fiercely close community and its universal struggles, and finally about our need to imagine a future, no matter how fragile, before we truly come home. This is a profound, gorgeous, heart-stopping work from one of our best writers."