________________ CM . . . . Volume IV Number 20 . . . . June 5, 1998

cover Zack.

William Bell.
Toronto, ON: Doubleday Canada, 1998.
165 pp, paper, $14.95.
ISBN 0-385-25711-2.

Subject Headings:
Racially mixed children-Fiction.
Black Canadian children-Fiction.

Grades 7 - 11 / Ages 12 - 16.
Review by William Thompson.

*** /4


My mother loved any kind of growing thing - except me. I sometimes felt - and my father loved my mother. By some kind of weird equation, these two facts, when added, equalled me with a shovel in my hand and a job to do. The former owner's dog's gifts to the ecosystem had been collected and buried a few days before - by me, naturally - so I marched dutifully to the spot Mom had picked on the left side of the yard next to the wooden fence, where the land began its gentle slope to the river, and began to dig holes for the three lilac bushes. Mom had given me very specific instructions on how deep and how far apart these excavations should be.
Zack Lane is bored and resentful, bored with small town Ontario, and resentful of his white, Jewish father and his African/American mother who decide to do the "pioneering thing" and leave Toronto. But Zack's interest is suddenly piqued when he digs up a wooden box while weeding his mother's lilac bushes. Inside the box is a collection of oddments, notably a strange iron device formed of two interlocking half circles wrapped in rotting cloth and what looks like a bronze coloured musket ball. Guessing that the box and its contents have something to do with local history, Zack agrees to write a research paper on his discovery in order to save his failing history grade at school. He finds out that the box belonged to Richard Pierpoint, an ex-slave who came to Upper Canada during the War of 1812. Zack writes the paper, but it only intensifies his need to know more about his African/American heritage, a need which eventually takes him to Mississippi to meet his estranged grandfather. Issues of race are at the forefront of William Bell's Zack. Zack's connection to his white, Jewish grandparents has always been strong, but he is curious as to why his mother has always refused to talk about her own father. Finding the box and writing his paper make Zack decide to seek out his grandfather. In the course of his research, Zack learns to his shock that the iron device was the neck manacle that Pierpoint wore as a slave. The musket ball, cast in solid gold and Pierpoint's life's savings, Zack reluctantly sells to a local jeweller in order to finance the trip to Mississippi. He takes the family truck while his parents are in Montreal, and, as he drives into the American south, he meets with a kind of racism that is much more deeply rooted than what he is used to in Ontario. Bell's treatment of racism in this book is poignant and straightforward. What Zack discovers is that racism, itself, is indiscriminant. Meeting his grandfather, Zack never tells the old man his name until he is about to leave. Lucas is a gentle old man who night-fishes off his dock for catfish in the Mississippi river, and he welcomes Zack into his home without even knowing who Zack is. But Lucas hates whites as much as the two southern cowboys who spit on Zack's truck at the gas station hate blacks. "...all whites is bastards," he says to Zack, which helps Zack to understand why his mother has refused to speak to the old man for so many years.

      What carries this book is Zack's voice. It's a first person narrative, and, although Zack at times sounds a little old for seventeen, his growing sense of being too "white" for some and too "black" for others, both at home and on the road, gives a particular edge to his point of view. What doesn't work in this book is the sex. Of course Zack's narrative abruptly stops whenever he and Jennifer - Zack's girlfriend - are about to make out, but these scenes, small in number though they are, only detract from the book's main story line. Nonetheless, a good read, and an unusual take on adolescent identity.


William Thompson is a doctoral candidate in the Dept. of English, the University of Alberta.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright © 1998 the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.

Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364