Pile of books

Canada Reads 2018: Two memoirs that opened my eyes

In recent years, I’ve longed to compete in Canada Reads, CBC’s annual literary contest, in a manner fit for someone who likes fiction and is not a published author of note or a Canadian celebrity. I’ve endeavoured to read the five shortlisted books before the week-long event so as to fully understand the arguments of each book’s advocate. In 2017, I was in another country and didn’t have the time or the resources to participate and so I was determined to read the books this year.

Things were looking up. I kept an eye out on the announcement of the shortlist and then set about acquiring as many of the books as possible and devouring them.

It’s helpful to know a particular quirk of mine: I don’t want to buy books I’ve never read. Weird, I know, but hear me out. I don’t want to buy books I’ve yet to read because it’s an opportunity to support my local library. Why do I want to do that? Well, to sum it up: libraries are cool. So, I borrow books from the library and if I like them well enough to re-read them or lend them to friends I buy a copy for home and usually a few as gifts.

This year, my library first rule proved to be an great hurdle. Of the five books, I managed to secure a physical copy of Precious Cargo and an ebook copy of Forgiveness. The other three, no dice. I’m still on the wait list for American War and The Boat People and I couldn’t find The Marrow Thieves in my library’s catalogue.

Now, I love fiction. Fiction is the best. It’s the product of imagination, creative forces and hope. Fiction has some wonderful characters, amazing settings and can tackle some of the heaviest themes we face in the real world. Fiction is so good… but I ended up with the two memoirs. I hope Craig Davidson and Mark Sakamoto can forgive me for not being initially excited to read their books. That said, being a lover of stories and having the desire to try to partially meet my Canada Reads goal, I read on.

A quick note on my distaste for memoirs. I’ve never much cared for memoirs, mostly because the ones I had been told to read were all memoirs supposedly written by giants. No, not giants like Wun Wun or the BFG (I’d certainly read their memoirs), giants of society: politicians and celebrities. Their stories always seem so far away for this asthmatic weirdo with a litany of allergies who grew up on a barren rock surrounded by the murderous waters of the North Atlantic. Memoirs, to me, meant stories of people attaining feats that were not just beyond my reach but my comprehension.

Reading these two books changed my understanding of the value of a memoir. Both Precious Cargo and Forgiveness tell intimate stories of real people. Sure, I understand that most memoirs do just that, but these stories show the complexity of the protagonists in ways that pull me in. I felt like I was on the bus with Craig and the kids. It was encouraging to read a story about a protagonist who happened to be, in some ways, the main antagonist of his own story. Often, I feel like my own life has mirrored Craig’s life in different ways and it’s healing to know that I’m not the only human being to have these struggles. As for Forgiveness, having the stories of Mark Sakamoto’s grandparents fills in the gaps of my education. I was pulled into the lives of Japanese-Canadians who faced the horrors of internment and the life of a World War II prisoner of war to fully grasp gravity of the cautionary phrase “Lest We Forget.”

I plan to write more about each book later on as there’s so much to be said about each one. For now, I’m grateful for the stories of Craig Davidson’s year driving the kids on bus 3077 and the stories of Mark Sakamoto’s grandparents during World War II. They’ve both opened my eyes and have helped me appreciate the power of a memoir.

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