George and Rue.
At age 13, I felt George Elliott Clarke's revolutionary impact when he gave a reading of his breakthrough poetry collection Whylah Falls (Polestar Press, 1990) at my high school. This was the first time I'd ever met an African Canadian writer, much less heard someone boldly assert the validity of the African Canadian voice. That day, I learned how to really read our poetry, lyrical and flowing free from the restrictions of traditional Western verse and stanza. I learned I could proudly draw on blackened English to let our histories speak in the richness of our own tongues. Though we don't formally know each other, I have followed his career and collected almost all of his work. I also attended many of the readings he gave while quickly rising to national and international prominence. His poetry, one opera and critical scholarship continue to revolutionize the mainstream by painting vivid portraits of Africadian culture without the presumption of literary and historical significance. (Africadian is a term that refers to African and Acadian, and denotes black culture in the Maritime region, particularly communities in Nova Scotia).
It is no surprise then, that voice, rhythm and the free flow of blackened English take center stage in Clarke's debut novel George and Rue. It is a poetic retelling of the gruesome 1949 murder of a white cab driver by two of Clarke's distant cousins George and Rufus Hamilton, in Fredericton, New Brunswick. Racial conflict ensues, of course, and the Hamiltons are eventually hanged. However, the reader must contemplate when, where and who committed the crime.
In many ways, George and Rue can serve as a companion piece to Clarke's Execution Poems (Gaspereau Press, 2001), which first brought the Hamilton brothers to life and won him the Governor General's Poetry Award in 2001. George and Rue, however, provides a different kind of space and a different kind of voice as it explores the complex social conditions of poor black men living in a poor black community on Canada's east coast. Though there is no sense of pity for George or Rue, there is an overwhelming sense of injustice that binds readers to the community Clarke refers to as "a displaced Mississippi."
Aside from giving readers a historical view of Africadian life during the early to mid-20th century, George and Rue is a sometimes funny, sometimes gory, always lyrical story that moves as it is moving. The reader becomes wrapped in Clarke's ever-brilliant use of language, which makes this first novel fed like orality caught in print.
--Reviewed by Dara N. Byrne, Ph.D. A Canadian, Data Byrne is a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice (CUNY) and consulting editor for Black Issues in Higher Education's (now called Diverse) Landmarks in Civil Rights History series.
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|Author:||Byrne, Dara N.|
|Publication:||Black Issues Book Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||May 1, 2006|
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