What a book can do

I can’t recall the title, but I clearly remember the first book that awakened me to suffering beyond a bloody nose or schoolyard snub. It was a small, blue, hard-covered book about the 16th century Spanish siege of Leiden. I sobbed to my mother: “Those poor Dutch people were trapped! They were starving! They ate dogs, cats and rats!” I was just a kid, but I’d discovered empathy.

Books continue to be a God-given opportunity for me to meet, understand and love my neighbour.

The Reason You Walk by Canadian journalist Wab Kinew is the unsentimental account of a father and son relationship inhabited by colonial subjugation. Kinew’s father, Tobasonakwut, endured a litany of horrors at St. Mary’s Indian Residential School. He was given a new name, Peter Kelly. Every aspect of his native culture was demeaned – his appearance, his language, his religion, his traditions. He was strapped for offenses he didn’t understand. He was sexually abused by both men and women, vilified by a nun even as she raped him. He witnessed the beating of his closest friend by white men and ran, in vain, to get help. The nuns insisted later that the boy had died of tuberculosis.

Tobasonakwut’s suffering remained private for much of his life. But the childhood nightmare dogged his marriage, his parenting and his emotional health. Gradually, determined to retrieve his dignity and his cultural heritage, Tobasonakwut achieved a remarkable transformation, becoming a national leader and advocate for his people. In 2009 he travelled to Rome to meet Pope Benedict XVI, offering him a feather as a symbol of reconciliation. Kinew sums up his father’s legacy: “He had grappled with his pain, with his anger and with his grief. Now, we had seen him conquer those things with love, a love he extended to his fellow human beings, including some who had hurt him.”

Katherine Boo’s book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, is an exposé of life in the seething “undercity” of Mumbai, a sprawling slum beside its elegant airport. Abdul, a Muslim trash picker, one of 10 children, is supporting the family because, as he says, his father is a man who is “too sick to sort much garbage, not sick enough to stay off his wife.” Abdul’s beleaguered future is thrown into even greater jeopardy when he is wrongfully accused of murder. We also meet Asha, slumlord by virtue of her body and her political savvy. Her ruthless scamming has but one goal – a college education for her talented daughter. Ironically, her “most-everything girl” ends up despising her, still trapped in Annawadi because of her mother’s fraudulent schemes.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a galling read. Boo demonstrates how brutish economic conditions give birth to morally unconscionable realities: “The poor blame one another for the choices of governments and markets and we who are not poor are ready to blame the poor just as harshly.”

The Illegal is Lawrence Hill’s latest work. Olympic-hopeful Keita Ali, a black marathon runner, grows up in dangerous Zantoroland. His journalist father is murdered for documenting political corruption. With the help of an unscrupulous sports agent, Keita escapes to Freedom State.

As a person with illegal status, Keita becomes enmeshed in complexities. Worse, his sister Charity has been kidnapped in Zantoroland and is being held for ransom. Keita takes huge risks, competing in public races to win the money he needs to free his sister. His terror is compounded as various individuals all want a piece of him – politicians, criminals, reporters and athletic promoters.

The fictional, futuristic setting of The Illegal allows Hill free rein to explore current issues without pinpointing particular countries. But to my mind – perhaps because I read it immediately after the impeccably researched Behind the Beautiful Forevers – the novel lacks the rigorous believability the subject matter demands. Nonetheless, it’s a gripping story that highlights the difficulties refugees face as they flee oppression.

Each of these books fostered my empathy for those who are different from me. My neighbourhood is expanding; so is yours. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Nothing that we despise in the other man is entirely absent from ourselves. We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or don’t do, and more in light of what they suffer.” I have a choice to make. Will I avert my eyes from the suffering of others or will I choose to be a good Samaritan? Educating myself is a step in the right direction.


  • Cathy Smith

    Cathy Smith, former features editor and columnist for Christian Courier, is a retired Christian schoolteacher who lives in Wyoming, Ont.

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