May 23, 2018

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Paperboy's coming-of-age story a vintage treat

If you can remember the year 1979, this novel will fill you with nostalgia. If not, this novel will make you feel like you were there.

Author Ray Robertson’s 1979 is set in Chatham, Ont., a city of just over 100,000 people today that’s located about three hours outside Toronto. Robertson lives in Toronto, but grew up in Chatham himself, and he perfectly evokes the feel of the city and the time period.

The novel explores the development of a 13-year-old boy struggling to understand his changing family against the backdrop of a city caught between new development and preserving its history. As indicated by the title, the novel opens in 1979. Thirteen-year-old Tom Buzby, the neighbourhood paperboy, narrates the story.

Going from door to door with the afternoon news doesn’t just give him early access to the day’s headlines — it gives him personal insight to the people on his route.

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If you can remember the year 1979, this novel will fill you with nostalgia. If not, this novel will make you feel like you were there.

Author Ray Robertson’s 1979 is set in Chatham, Ont., a city of just over 100,000 people today that’s located about three hours outside Toronto. Robertson lives in Toronto, but grew up in Chatham himself, and he perfectly evokes the feel of the city and the time period.

The novel explores the development of a 13-year-old boy struggling to understand his changing family against the backdrop of a city caught between new development and preserving its history. As indicated by the title, the novel opens in 1979. Thirteen-year-old Tom Buzby, the neighbourhood paperboy, narrates the story.

Going from door to door with the afternoon news doesn’t just give him early access to the day’s headlines — it gives him personal insight to the people on his route.

"I was the paperboy, so there wasn’t much I didn’t see or hear," Tom says.

People also open up to Tom because he has special status as the boy who came back from the dead following a terrible incident in the city’s sewers.

But Tom doesn’t feel he has any special insight into how people work — he doesn’t even understand his own life.

His mom, a former stripper who wanted only to "be normal," abandoned the family after becoming an evangelical Christian and falling in love with her pastor. His 18-year-old sister has fallen under the influence of ’70s rock music and her ultra-cool, Toronto-born best girlfriend. His father, a tough-looking tattoo artist, provides the love and guidance Tom needs, but still suffers from losing his wife.

As Robertson traces Tom’s coming of age, he explores themes of innocence lost, wisdom gained and learning to forgive. In between Tom’s narrative appear news article-style stories written in the third person about a variety of characters, minor and not so minor. These add depth and perspective, but at times the readers will feel cheated with getting only a glimpse of some very interesting lives.

Robertson has authored seven other novels, and his talent as a writer shows in his clear prose and ability to create unique and believable characters.

His depiction of the political and social culture of Chatham gives readers an authentic sense of what it was like in the ’70s as a city of 33,000 people.

Readers may recognize similarities between Winnipeg and the Chatham of the novel, with their large working-class populations and push-and-pull over development versus history.

Characters in the novel debate over the real-life issue of demolishing Harrison Hall, one of Chatham’s historic buildings, to build a shopping centre and attract money and business to the downtown area.

The novel also scatters references to real-life news events such as the Iranian hostage crisis and the Vietnam War, but not as many as would be expected in a novel with a paperboy as its main character. Robertson makes up for this with liberal pop-culture references.

He also includes plenty of Canadian content, referring to CBC, Hockey Night in Canada and even takes sly shots at the Toronto Maple Leafs.

At one point, Tom wonders if his dad’s state of mind is any stranger than "…people making believe that the Toronto Maple Leafs were going to win the Stanley Cup in our lifetime?"

Not so strange, as some people still believe this.

Winnipeg writer Kathryne Cardwell works at the Winnipeg Foundation.

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