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Bookmark #15 Oakville, Ontario

Any Known Blood, by Lawrence Hill


It was slow going because of the mud on the roads. Captain Wilson had his trousers tucked smartly into boots that came almost to his knees, and he seemed not to mind leaping over a puddle here and stepping around oozing mud and horseshit there.We walked up a steep hill from the harbor. Navy Street, which we came onto, looked like a fairyland. Houses spaced neatly apart. Stone foundations, painted wood walls. Neat, small windows with many small, square panes of glass. Finely sculpted doors, brass doorknobs. Horse-drawn wagons pulled by steadily, drivers calling out to Captain Wilson, many in that same, sing-song, womanish voice with which he spoke. Where I came from, men didn’t put such music into their talking voices. Up here, men and women chattered like birds.
– from Any Known Blood, by Lawrence Hill, published by HarperCollinsPublishersLtd.
Bookmarked at Oakville, October 5, 2015.

Project Bookmark Canada founder Miranda Hill with author Lawrence Hill at the October 5, 2015 unveiling.

Project Bookmark Canada founder Miranda Hill with author Lawrence Hill at the October 5, 2015 unveiling.

Oakville Mayor Rob Burton and author Lawrence Hill at the Any Known Blood Bookmark unveiling.

Oakville Mayor Rob Burton and author Lawrence Hill at the Any Known Blood Bookmark unveiling.

 

Bookmark #15, Any Known Blood was unveiled on October 5th, 2015 by author Lawrence Hill and Oakville Mayor Rob Burton, at the corner of King and Navy Streets, on the grounds of the Oakville Museum. The narrator in the Bookmarked passage is a fugitive arriving in Canada via the Underground Railroad, making his way to the safe house of Captain Robert Wilson, a real Great Lakes shipping captain who lived in the yellow house across the road. After you visit the Bookmark, be sure to include a stop at the Oakville Museum, to see the exhibits on Oakville's Black history and on the Underground Railroad.


About Lawrence Hill and Any Known Blood

Lawrence Hill was born in 1957 to American immigrants—a black father and a white mother—who moved to Canada the day after they married in 1953 in Washington, DC. Growing up in the predominantly white suburb of Don Mills, Ontario, Hill was greatly influenced by his parents’ work in the human rights movement. Much of Hill’s writing touches on issues of identity and belonging.

Hill’s books include The Book of Negroes, which won CBC’s Canada Reads, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Prize for Fiction and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book, and was made into a popular television mini-series. In 2013, Hill delivered the Massey Lectures based on his book Blood: The Stuff of Life.

Any Known Blood was published in 1997 and tells the story of five generations of a black family moving back and forth across the US-Canada border. Hill wrote the novel while living in Oakville, and drew on the resources of the Oakville Historical Society and the Oakville Museum for some of his research. Many actual Oakville locations are featured in the story, including Captain Robert Wilson’s house on Navy Street, which appears in this scene.

Any Known Blood is published by HarperCollinsPublishersLtd. and is used with the kind permission of the author.


The Passage

Oakville was a prosperous town, full of huge oak trees. They had so many oak trees that they made a business of cutting them down and sawing them up and sending them across the lake.
Paul and I helped Mattie and three deckhands and three men from shore unload the schooner. That took the better part of three hours.  I was bone tired. And I was hungry. But I was in Canada, and I was free, so bone tired and hungry didn’t matter. When we finished, Captain Robert Wilson asked us to walk with him to his home. I asked if he was a Quaker, and he laughed and said no, a Presbyterian.
It was slow going because of the mud on the roads. Captain Wilson had his trousers tucked smartly into boots that came almost to his knees, and he seemed not to mind leaping over a puddle here and stepping around oozing mud and horseshit there.We walked up a steep hill from the harbor. Navy Street, which we came onto, looked like a fairyland. Houses spaced neatly apart. Stone foundations, painted wood walls. Neat, small windows with many small, square panes of glass. Finely sculpted doors, brass doorknobs. Horse-drawn wagons pulled by steadily, drivers calling out to Captain Wilson, many in that same, sing-song, womanish voice with which he spoke. Where I came from, men didn’t put such music into their talking voices. Up here, men and women chattered like birds. Many were out on the roads, dodging the potholes and mud, women hoisting their skirts when necessary. I saw some black folks, too. Some looked our way, nodded gently, and kept at what they were doing. None of the Negroes seemed to lack employment. They carried buckets, drove horse teams, opened doors to sweep dust into the street.
Captain Robert Wilson lived close to the harbor, in a fine two-story house that sat on a foundation consisting of slabs of gray-brown stone. Later, I would learn that it was shale, pulled from the bed of Lake Ontario. The walls were painted yellow. I tapped one as we stood at the door. “Pine,” the captain told me, “cut down not two miles from where we stand.” I noticed, as we were heading in, one or two gaps in the foundation. They were just big enough for a brown rat. The captain asked us to remove our shoes in a mudroom just inside the side door, walked us into what he called a guest room, which had a proper bed, and told us to put our things down, which took all of a moment, since I had but one bag, and Paul Williams had nothing at all.

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