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This article was published 2/3/2012 (2915 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
AN alarming description of a young boy losing his arm in the giant wheel of a lumber mill may seem an odd beginning for a novel about membership debates in a 19th-century Baptist church association.
Jim Freedman's Sissiboo River Redemption begins with its fictional narrator's explanation of how he came to be a writer: his stump of an arm meant he was freed from life in the mill and sent to school. From this opening, it is clear that the novel will transform potentially dusty clerical history into a gripping story.
Based in London, Ont., Freedman is the author or editor of numerous non-fiction books and a young adult novel. This is his first adult novel.
The town of Weymouth Falls, on the Sissiboo River, lies in southwest Nova Scotia and was founded in the 1780s by Loyalists. Freedman, born in North Carolina and witness to the birth of the civil rights movement, lived in Weymouth Falls and researched this novel for over two decades.
Fans of Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes or George Elliott Clarke's Whylah Falls may already know the story of the black Loyalists and their descendents. For those new to the subject, Freedman offers a fictionalized account of this Nova Scotian community in the second half of the 19th century in a lively narrative that raises important questions about suffering and forgiveness.
Weymouth Falls has always been a diverse place, counting among its residents descendents of white and black Loyalists, French Acadians, aboriginal Mi'kmaqs, and German immigrants.
Freedman writes this diverse history primarily along the white-black divide, describing the 1880s attempts to reunite the black Baptist churches that split over whether to follow a white preacher.
At the centre of the Weymouth Falls African Baptist congregation is the larger-than-life pastor, Randolph Langford. Freedman depicts him as a man divided by his glorious gifts to uplift the community and his lapses into near-madness, especially when tempted by liquor or women.
The novel focuses on how the two women in his life, his wife, Annie Eliza, and her best friend, Eliza Bailey, suffer the violent consequences of his fervour.
In many ways, pastor Langford represents the community as a whole. His split personality is mirrored in the congregation's loyalty to the church at the same time that they break its rules. Life is not easy in Weymouth Falls, where poverty, racism and discrimination are rampant, so many of the characters defy the church's preaching on temperance.
At one key point, the pastor follows one of his brilliant sermons with too much home brew at a wild party — complete with French fiddling that invites the most buttoned-down parishioners to frenzied dancing.
The bulk of the story is set in 1883, but Freedman goes back further in a riveting account of a runaway slave's experience delivered from the pulpit by the elderly Sister Langford.
This testimony reunites the divided congregation by reminding them of their ancestors' suffering and sacrifices. For the reader, Sister Langford's story shows how the scars of slavery resonated down the generations and folds this seemingly remote corner of Eastern Canada into global history.
This novel does for Weymouth Falls what Stephen Leacock, Margaret Laurence and Alice Munro have each done for the small towns of their fictional worlds. The difference here is that Freedman's imagination directs us to an actual place and a real history that resonates in the present.
Candida Rifkind teaches in the English department at the University of Winnipeg.
Sissiboo River Redemption
By Jim Freedman
Borealis, 298 pages, $20