Cyril Rowntree migrates to Toronto from Jamaica in 2012. Managing a precarious balance of work and university he begins to navigate his way through the implications of being racialized in his challenging new land.
A chance encounter with a panhandler named Patricia leads Cyril to a suitcase full of photographs and letters dating back to the early 1920s. Cyril is drawn into the letters and their story of a white mother’s struggle with the need to give up her mixed-race baby, Edward. Abandoned by his own white father as a small child, Cyril’s keen intuition triggers a strong connection and he begins to look for the rest of Edward’s story.
As he searches, Cyril unearths fragments of Edward’s itinerant life as he crisscrossed the country. Along the way, he discovers hidden pieces of Canada’s Black history and gains the confidence to take on his new world.
Says the author, Sheila Murray, about this excerpt from her debut novel, Finding Edward, “it is 1940 and Edward has left Toronto for the very first time. Abandoned as a baby by his mother, who couldn’t cope with a mixed-race child, he has led a hardscrabble life. He is only eighteen but has had to fend for himself since he was very young. Among all of the hardships, only one thing has been bright and beautiful and good. And she is long gone.”
From Finding Edward https://www.cormorantbooks.com/finding-edward (Release date: June 15, 2022)
Inside the Penny Shop the woman looked him up and down. Said she’d take ten cents for the root beer, but kept looking at him like she didn’t think he’d buy.
“I need a place to stay,” said Edward. “I need a job and a bed to lay down on at night. I’m good at work. But right now, I’m real tired because I just got in.”
“Just blew in to Africville,” she said. Then smiled like he’d probably turned up in the right place. “Sit down,” she said. He sat in the chair in the corner of the shop that was really just her front room with some shelves and a counter, a wood stove and a couple more chairs. The kids had wandered off when they realized that no one was going to yell, or buy them candy.
“There are no jobs here,” she said. “It’s the depression. Could be that it’s better in the rest of the country now that we’re at war, but not much changes here. There are jobs in Halifax. I’d never go there. Then she laughed, a giggle that rose up through her throat and landed like a gift in between them. Edward smiled. “I came in on the rails,” he said. “The other fellows got off in Halifax.”
“That’s where you’ll go,” she said. “Soon as you’ve had some rest.”
One man came in. Then a couple more. They’d come for tobacco and rolling papers, to share the reading of a newspaper. They stood around and talked. When a fourth man arrived the shop was full, so they all moved outside, told Edward to bring his chair with him and sit with them on the porch.
“This really is all coloured, this town?” said Edward, looking up at the black faces standing around him.
“Some of us is descended from the Maroons of Jamaica,” said the tallest of them. “My family’s been around here for more than two-hundred years. We built the Citadel, the fortress on the hill. And we defended it.”
A couple of the men groan like they’ve heard the story so many times before and would not choose to hear it again.
“Some been here even longer,” said the tall man. “The French brought slaves into Louisbourg three hundred years ago. Louisbourg wouldn’t be there without them. Then came the Loyalists, though they never got what they were promised and most went off to Sierra Leone. For a better life than they got here.” He stopped to survey his audience, “Hope they got it,” he said. Then lit a cigarette, tossing the spent match into a wide mouthed can in the corner of the porch. “Maroons followed them out a few years later. But enough stayed. There’s coloured settlements all over Nova Scotia.”
“Let him rest,” said the shop lady with her smile. “Sleep first, history of the world from you fellas later.”
“How old are you?” asked one of the men. Not like it really mattered.
“Nearly nineteen,” said Edward, who knew he was as grown as he’d ever be.
“If you’re staying around, you’ll be going to the church. Someone there will find you something useful to do. We don’t need any more rounders here.”
“Maybe you’re headed for Halifax?” asked another.
“Not for a while. I like it here. It’s like no place I was ever at before.”
“Where’ve you been? You’re a traveling man?”
“Only here,” said Edward. “Toronto is where I came from.”
After a few days, it was as though he’d been there for years. One of the fellas who worked the night-soil truck let him have a cot in his house. It was pretty good. A straw mattress. Pump outside for water. He got to use the kitchen. He’d met a bunch of people who called him by his name, and he’d learned theirs. When it came to Sunday, he knew better than to upset folk by staying away from God, so he scrubbed up good, borrowed a jacket from a lady’s dead husband’s cupboard, and walked to the Seaview African United Baptist Church.
And that was the second astonishing wonder of Africville. The view of the sea. The Bedford Basin spread out below with its changing colours and feelings, the constant sound of it. A living thing. The ocean was something else he never could have imagined, but to see it now was as though it had always belonged to him. Like a mother who’d got lost but was found. He could stare at that ocean for hours and on the first day he did. Sat all through the afternoon looking at how the water moved under the shifting clouds, sparkled like glass when the sunlight hit it right, then gloomed under the gathering dusk as the sun fell flaming pink into the horizon.
In church he sits near the back where a couple of fellows make way for him, shuffling their behinds along the wooden pew. When he settles, and the talking starts — priest mumbling on about things Edward doesn’t want to know, won’t ever believe — he looks at the backs of heads. Everyone cleaned up, suit jackets and straight backs. All the ladies wearing hats. Some men with their hair pomaded and combed, others with their heads bowed. One old fellow already snoring in the second pew. The tops of children’s heads bobbing about, a bow, a pigtail, one of them turns to look at him but her mother pulls her attention back to the front.
Off to the right about four pews down there is one little hat, bright blue with a slip of lace hanging down behind. And below the lace a navy collar then shapely shoulders compact in a royal blue dress. The back of her neck above the navy and below the lace is straight and attentive. Her long neck. If he could see her from the front he knew that her throat would be as long and as delicate as the ballerina’s he’d once seen in a newspaper picture.
For a moment he panics at the violence of his question, What if it’s not her? And the time when a bird hit off the train comes into his head. He’d cradled it in his hand, stroked its breast, soft down over fragile bone, ‘til it opened its beak, pushed out with its wings and he’d straightened his palm. Some seconds later — he’d held his breath — it flew. And the panic is gone because he knows now without a doubt that it is her. He knows her throat so well that the taste of her skin now tickles salty over his tongue. Celia sits there, with her back to him, just four rows down. She is the third, unequalled and astounding, astonishing wonder of Africville.
Sheila Murray’s short fiction has been published in various literary journals including Descant, The Dalhousie Review, and The New Quarterly. Finding Edward is her first novel. Murray is an advocate for social justice and climate change response and currently works as project director with CREW (Community Resilience to Extreme Weather). She was born in St. Albans, England and now lives in Hamilton, Ontario.