I found myself engrossed in this year’s Canada Reads debate. I haven’t had the time to read the books or listen to the debates in a couple of years so perhaps this excitement occurs every year, but this year’s debate seemed particularly intense. I think part of that intensity was because the debate was about more than books. This year was also about the issues that need the attention of Canadians. So each debater wasn’t just arguing the literary merits of their books, they were also arguing for the recognition of Aboriginal rights (The Orenda), the plight of new immigrants (Cockroach), gender identity (Annabel), racism (Half-Blood Blues) and the environment (Year of the Flood). And all of these issues elicit strong emotions.
Although in hindsight, I’m not quite sure Donovan Bailey did present the issue “Half-Blood Blues” brings to the forefront. I think the only reason that “Half-Blood Blues” made it to Day 2 was because the book is so well written. It didn’t have a relevant Canadian justice issue, not in the obvious way as the rest of the books, so it wasn’t a surprise when it was voted out.
The most disappointing result was Day 1’s elimination of “Year of the Flood”. I agree with Stephen Lewis that the book put forward a very real environmental future, and that we lost out on that discussion by having the book voted out on Day 1. I know that some of the panelists argued that Atwood’s characters were not relatable yet I did not understand how the protagonist of “Cockroach” escaped that same assessment and resulting elimination. The result of the Day 1 debate still shocks me.
Another surprise for me was the eloquence of the panelists. Wab Kinew’s spoken word defense on the first day was clap-inducing (while driving in my car might I add). Stephen Lewis, who questioned his suitability on the first day for a literary panel, had so many quotable arguments. Most memorable for me: “I thought he was drunk on similes and metaphors” in reference to Rawi Hage’s “Cockroach”.
Sarah Gadon who seemed timid at first introductions quickly shed that perception by presenting her opinion firmly, voting strategically, and arguing passionately for “Annabel”. Even when all the panelists argued against her regarding the pregnancy plot point, Gadon stood her ground. She insisted the metaphorical meaning of the incident be considered (a worthwhile analysis I had not seen) and that an untrue literal interpretation should not sway the panelists’ votes. Her gutteral complaints at the elimination of “Annabel” reflected just how much she believed in her book and the issues it brought up.
And Samantha Bee. Every day I was impressed by her thoughtful, articulate, and emotional arguments for “Cockroach” and the issues faced by new immigrants that she felt this book represented. She made me (and her panelists) reconsider a book I had completely dismissed, and I think she is the reason that “Cockroach” made it so far in this competition.
And yet despite her best arguments, “The Orenda” won in a nail-biting final vote. I definitely agree it is the best book in terms of literary worth and the ability to change Canada’s perspective. The only thing that I wished at the end was that the debates could have gone on longer. There were so many issues both literary and socially that went undiscussed due to time restrictions, and perspectives that went unsaid due to the competitive nature of Canada Reads 2014. It’s too bad there couldn’t be a monthly radio book discussion. I guess I will just have to wait for next year’s Canada Reads!