Recreating a lost neighbourhood
Knight’s debut novel charts the dreams and desires of her Hogan’s Alley characters
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Through a young Black girl’s observant eyes, the people and landscape of Hogan’s Alley in Vancouver’s East End are made real in Chelene Knight’s novel, Junie.
Knight selected this vibrant area — home to many immigrant families of colour before it was destroyed in the 1960s to make way for modern development — as the setting for her debut novel. She provides a realistic look at the lives of two mothers and their daughters from 1933 to 1939, following their hopes and sorrows as they change — and the world around them changes.
Winner of the 2018 Vancouver Book Award, Knight’s essays have been published in many Canadian and American literary journals and newspapers. Her poem, Welwitschia, won the 2020 Contemporary Verse 2 Editor’s Choice Award. She currently works as a literary agent and lives in Harrison Hot Springs, B.C.
The novel opens with Junie and her mother Maddie’s arrival in the East End. Junie’s father has deserted them and Maddie is determined to become a well-known singer, performing in the small clubs and lounges catering mainly to Black patrons. Maddie is an outgoing woman with a big personality and temper to match. Her temper, fuelled by alcohol, has resulted in her being fired from a few nightclubs. She knows the East End clubs offer the last chance for her to pursue her singing career. Her ambition makes her blind to her daughter’s needs.
“Mama wants to have what others don’t have just so she can say she has it. The world needs to pay attention to Mama and give her all the money she deserves because she is a star after all. This is what she tells me, and I don’t know how to swallow her words down; they scrape the insides of my throat as they go,” Junie says.
Starting school, Junie meets Miss Shirley, a teacher who is active in the Black women’s movement. As the years pass, Miss Shirley encourages Junie to develop her artistic vision and have the courage to live her life without seeking Maddie’s approval.
Junie also meets an intriguing classmate, Estelle, whose life seems to be perfect compared to Junie’s. Despite their differences, the girls become close friends. Estelle’s life is also far from ideal as, like Junie, she has to constantly find ways to please her mother, Faye. Faye is so determined to be a successful business owner running the Coal Club, an East End lounge, that she ends her marriage when her husband refuses to support her dream.
After arguing with her husband, she asks her young daughter, “You want to see your mama successful don’t ya, Estelle? Yes. You’d be proud. Have my name on something. Something that would last a lifetime and then some.”
Like their mothers, Junie and Estelle have big dreams — of being an artist and dancer, respectively. Because they know their mothers are too wrapped up in their own personal lives to pay proper attention to them, they turn to each other for comfort and love. “Only a few months after meeting Estelle, Junie felt like she had a sister,” Knight writes. “She had a closeness with Estelle that she never had with anyone. It had happened so fast and the warm feeling that surged through her tiny body when Estelle was near her was something she was content with keeping.”
However, when Junie tries to initiate a physical relationship a few years later, Estelle rejects her. Maddie suspects that her daughter is gay; she begs Junie to stifle those feelings, as they will cause her extra grief and trouble throughout her life as a Black woman.
“’I’ve known girls like you. Club dancers. The world wasn’t kind to them. You don’t think you have enough problems already? You want to go ahead and add another one? You think He isn’t watching you and marking you?’ Maddie said, pointing up at the ceiling. ‘Lord knows we all have demons crawling up our backs, but this … this just ain’t right.’”
In Junie, Knight explores the complex emotions existing between mothers and daughters while highlighting a long-lost corner of Canada in the 1930s. She uses a poetic narrative to shed light on each of the four women’s fragile dreams vulnerable to being crushed by the hard world in which they live.
Andrea Geary is a Winnipeg writer.