Léa by Ariela Freedman

Léa opens with a riot: a labour protest, in 1937 Montreal, violently disrupted by the police. The titular protagonist feels a sense of righteous preparedness; she was made for this moment. The novel then returns to her early childhood, examining how she became a fearless organizer and activist.

Léa Roback was a real labour activist and feminist whose life spanned almost the entire twentieth century: born in 1903 to a large Jewish family in Quebec, she died in 2000. Ariela Freedman’s vibrant novel is a fictionalization of part of Léa’s life, from her early childhood through the end of World War II. Coming of age in a Montreal steeped in Catholicism, Léa navigates antisemitism, the burden of gendered expectations, and her own sense of political discontent. Watching her mother bear child after child until it wears her down, Léa decides to embark on a different sort of life, bouncing between Montreal, Berlin, Rome, New York, and, briefly, the Soviet Union. In Freedman’s rendition of this long and extraordinary life, Léa emerges as an audacious and adventurous character guided by her own principles.

“The novel is a feast for the senses, rich prose bringing its varied locales to life.”

The novel is a feast for the senses, rich prose bringing its varied locales to life. The tumult of the first half of the twentieth century is palpable. Léa is radicalized in Europe, partly by the people she meets and partly by her growing sense of her own lack of safety in fascist countries increasingly invested in antisemitism. Freedman deftly portrays this mounting political upheaval, culminating in Léa’s flight back to Montreal. But Montreal is no safe space for her: her political activities are outlawed and she is forced to organize in secrecy. The novel is particularly interested in the way Léa navigates life at the margins, her religion, gender, and politics always placing her in danger of persecution. Yet Léa is brave and optimistic, someone who we can easily root for. She becomes a figure to follow through familiar periods in Quebec and world history, personalizing the upheaval of two world wars, the rise of both Communism and fascism, the Canadian labour movement, and the fight for women’s rights. Léa’s connections to several prominent figures are explored – from Dr. Norman Bethune to suffragette and politician Thérése Casgrain. These events and legendary figures are at once immense and deeply personal in the novel.

In her afterword, Freedman writes that in writing the novel, she felt that she “was channelling not only the past but the present”. Indeed, the best historical fiction feels relentlessly relevant, inviting us to reflect both on how much has changed and how much has stayed the same. In Léa’s lifetime (and due in part to her own efforts!), women won the right to vote. But the struggles against fascism, antisemitism, and labour exploitation remain relevant twenty-two years after her death. Freedman’s novel offers an opportunity to turn to fiction to learn from Léa’s uncompromising and remarkable life.

Ariela Freedman was born in Brooklyn and has lived in Jerusalem, New York, Calgary, London, and Montreal. She has a Ph.D. from New York University and teaches literature at Concordia’s Liberal Arts College in Montreal, where she lives with her family. Her debut, Arabic for Beginners (LLP, 2017), was shortlisted for the QWF Concordia University First Book Prize and won the 2018 J. I. Segal Prize for Fiction. Her second novel, A Joy to be Hidden (LLP, 2019), was shortlisted for the Segal Prize in 2020 and was a finalist for The Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Linda Leith Publishing (Feb. 12 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 296 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1773901028
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1773901022

Clementine Oberst is a Ph.D. candidate specializing in television studies. Born and raised in Toronto, she has lived in Montreal and Glasgow and now calls Hamilton home. When she isn't writing her dissertation, Clementine can be found knitting, trying to cultivate a green thumb, and playing with her cats. She loves nothing more than losing herself in a good book. You can connect with her on Instagram @clementinereads.