Sunday, March 30, 2014

Blood: The Stuff of Life by Lawrence Hill, reviewed by Sally Wylie

House of Anansi Press, 384 pages, $19.95 paperback or $16.95 e-book, available hereFor information about submitting to House of Anansi,  see here.

Blood: the Stuff of life was written as a series of essays for the CBC Massey Lectures by Lawrence Hill. Hill’s essays describe ways that blood seeps into virtually all aspects of life:  religion, science, literature, politics, art, biology and history. From a social and historic point of view, blood unites and divides us all.

From blood transfusions to blood groups, HIV/AIDS to diabetes, Hill follows the trail of blood through history. For example, although the term blood quantum does not appear in the Indian Act (Canada), it does influence the ways in which the 614 First Nations consider membership. Hill explains how the Supreme Court rejected the concept of blood quantum of the Metis, and referred instead to the heritage of native peoples.

This particular section regarding blood quantum was informative, considering the variation of legislation from 1939 to 2001 regarding identities of Inuit and “Indians”.  Add to that the federal vs. provincial laws and understandings, and you’ve got the kind of blood mystery that Hill loves. He realizes that “blood” is more than identification; it can mean rights under treaties, getting housing, and other resources.

Most fascinating was his treatment of the language of blood; such as, “bad blood,” “bleeding hearts” and “blood brothers.” He gives us bloody good examples of pioneers in the research of blood such as Iganz Semmelweis whose 19th century studies caused him to be ostracized for his work, and then, in an ironic twist, died of blood poisoning.

But Hill is at his best when he describes his personal experiences such as in his opening anecdote of Hill as a boy watching his blood drip on the sidewalk.  “Looking back, I wonder about the mad impulse to hold out my arm and splash every sidewalk panel.”

Most readers can identify. From blood’s proof of his existence as a boy to his later understandings of blood’s profound impact on every part of his life, Hill pulls us in every time when he writes about his fascination with the stuff of life. 

Two stories seemed of particularly importance to him.  One story occurred in Niger in 1979 when, as a volunteer, he contracted gastroenteritis so severe that he needed a blood transfusion.  He describes well the process of his concern over whose blood he was receiving only to realize that it didn’t really matter if it was African or European. Blood would not make him someone else. Blood saved him.

The other story concerns blood as it relates to family. In many of his books, including the novel The Book of Negroes, blood is central to family.  Blood is used interchangeably with race or identity, blood lines or blood lineage.  Remarrying and acquiring stepchildren forced Hill to think about the meaning of family.

This topic which he explored fully should be essential reading for all families who have step-children, step-parents or adopted children. Hill worked out to his satisfaction the meaning of blood in his life. Perhaps we can acquire some degree of his heightened awareness of what it means to have blood and be blood.  We can learn from him.

When reading this book late at night, it is Hill’s personal stories which resonate far more than the collection of historical facts, conjectures and essay topics. Although thought provoking, the inclusive list of exhaustive subjects which relate to blood begins to coagulate.  Perhaps it is the kind of book which you read, reread another day, then puts away until it summons you again to explore those life blood issues.

Sally Wylie has recently retired from her career in Early Childhood Education.  In 2012, she co-authored her 4th edition of the text titled Observing Young Children: Transforming early learning through reflective practice with Nelson Publishing.  She has published numerous articles in Canadian Journals on subjects relating to early childhood.  She is happy to finally be writing fiction and be part of a writing circle!

P.S. For the past three years Canada Writes has put on a public writing challenge around the subject of that particular year’s Massey Lecture. In 2013, what resulted was a publically submitted collection to Canada Writes of Canadian stories about family trees called Bloodlines.

Sally Wylie’s Bloodlines piece, “Trapping Furs.” can be read here; Mary Steer’s piece, “Family Tree” can be read here; Val Cureton’s piece, “Born British” can be read here; and Bieke Steongos’s piece, “The Church Keys,” can be read here.

See Brian Henry’s schedule here, including writing workshops and creative writing courses in Barrie, Brampton, Bolton, Burlington, Caledon, Cambridge, Collingwood, Georgetown, Guelph, Hamilton, Kingston, London, Midland, Mississauga, Newmarket, Orillia, Oakville, Ottawa, Peterborough, St. Catharines, Stouffville, Sudbury, Toronto, Halton, Kitchener-Waterloo, Muskoka, Peel, Simcoe, York, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.

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