Hill, Lawrence: Any Known Blood

Hill, Lawrence: Any Known Blood
Harper Collins Canada, 1997
First published in The Haliburton County Echo, County Life
Summer, 1998.
Review by:  Kerry Riley

Langston Cane the fifth is a big name, and, indeed, its owner is finding it a bit of a burden.  Thirty-eight, overshadowed by a prominent black father, an up-and-coming younger brother, and a long line of worthy ancestors, stuck in a meaningless job, childless and divorced, this particular Langston Cane is beginning to feel like a dynasty in decline.  In his own words, “This can’t go on.”

“I didn’t set out to get fired,” the protagonist in Oakville writer Lawrence Hill’s new book Any Known Blood, insists, but the reader, alerted to certain inconsistencies in the argument, knows better.  After receiving a visit from an ancient family friend and hierophant, who shows him that his true role is not to be a conspicuous achiever, but to act as the family recorder and historian, Langston sabotages his job as a speech writer for the Ontario “Ministry of Wellness” and cuts the last tie that binds him to his present life.  He is now free to pack a few essentials into his second-hand Volkswagen Jetta named Sarah and head off to Baltimore, home of an estranged aunt, and some family history, to write about his roots.  And therein hangs this tale.

A parade of characters, past and present, some alarming, some disarming, unearthed as a result of Langston’s endeavors, begin to fill in conspicuous gaps in the official family mythology.  His ancestors travelled in the underground railway, participated in John Brown’s ill-fated raid on Harper’s Ferry, survived brushes with the Canadian Klu Klux Klan, and battled silent racism in 1950’s Oakville, Ontario. Himself a product of a mixed marriage, Langston’s family chronicle provides readers with a unique perspective on black history and race relations.

Lawrence Hill has mixed parentage.  His black father was Daniel Hill, former chair of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, and he has a famous brother, Dan Hill, the singer.  His day job involves speech writing for the Ontario government, and his latest book is based on his family’s history.  This brings me to the one reservation I have about Any Known Blood.  Actually, it’s not that big — we’ll call it a quasi-reservation.  The first person narrative of the protagonist, the personal style of the writing, and the many striking similarities between Langston Cane and the real-life Hill, found me having to continually correct my impression that the “I” in the story WAS Lawrence Hill, not the fictitious Langston Cane.  Does this present a real problem?  Only, I think, in so far as it may indicate a writer so close to his material that at least a little of this confusion existed for him as well.

Quasi-reservations aside, this is a thoroughly enjoyable book.  Hill’s writing style has a transparent quality that allows one to progress through large pieces of narrative without once being aware of the writing itself.   His characters are strong, their lives compelling, and never is the often hilarious story sacrificed for a message.

A short note of local interest:  Large portions of this book were written in Haliburton County, to which Hill often retreated for extended writing binges.

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