Reviewed by Marc Brown
Despite our best intentions, judging a book by its cover is often inevitable. In the case of Wayne Ng’s Letters From Johnny, it would be a mistake. The smartly illustrated cover suggests a children’s or YA offering with a Canadian setting in October 1970. Indeed, the entire novella’s epistolary format is letters. This isn’t anything new (The Color Purple, Diary of a Wimpy Kid comes to mind) but these letters are strategically replete with strike-throughs, spelling errors, poor grammar and little punctuation. In short, it is written the way the protagonist, eleven-year-old Johnny Wong, might write. Ordinarily, this would be distracting or irritating but Ng deftly smooths this out by having Johnny’s draft-dodging friend Rollie present him with a dictionary and offer five cents for every time he uses it. Very quickly, perhaps even unrealistically, Johnny’s spelling improves. However, for the reader, there are no more distractions, just a warm, poignant story as the boy’s innocence and humour offset the uneven early readability. Just as importantly, the reader is squarely positioned within Johnny’s head.
While this voice and format will appeal to younger readers, the universal themes of a search for identity and a need to belong will resonate with anyone who never quite felt understood or that they belonged. Moreover, the novel will also draw in legions of Toronto Maple Leaf diehard fans, Canadian history buffs and lovers of off-beat immigrant stories. In essence, this is an adult fiction/YA crossover.
Johnny Wong’s world is downtown Toronto, mainly Henry Street and environs, just blocks from Chinatown and the Ontario parliament buildings at Queen’s Park. The rest of the world is rapidly changing and the broader societal shift from WASPY ways to a racialized Canada and Quebec nationalism piques Johnny’s curiosity. Rollie explains the FLQ to him as “some people needing to bust loose, figure it out and stick it to “The Man.” He says that although Canada is a young country, it’s about the same age as the U.S. was when they had their civil war. These words portend the October Crisis, which is just about to explode. At the same time, Johnny must navigate life under the care of a single mother who keeps another Johnny (Walker) in red boots, above the refrigerator. For reasons unknown to him, his father is in Vancouver and he daydreams about him often in school. We also quickly see that neighbourhood squabbles are the norm until one day, Meany Ming, the Chinese immigrant gardener who lives next door, is murdered.
There’s mayhem in this mixture of murder, threats of child welfare authorities, a gut-wrenching betrayal and blackmail. All this as terrorism rises in a country that is, like Johnny, struggling to grow up. The latter forces Prime Minister “True Dough” (whom, according to Johnny, would not be hard to beat up if he was a for-real man) to call in the army.
What keeps Johnny sane through all of this are his letters, first to a pen pal in Idaho, a school project suggested by his teacher, then to his idol, Dave Keon, because “As captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs, (he) can be trusted.”
The kidnapping of a Quebec politician by the FLQ touches Johnny as it leaves the politician’s son, Jean, fatherless too. Johnny dreams of capturing the terrorists and earning the reward, thus enabling the return of his father, who he hopes will take him to see Dave Keon at Maple Leaf Gardens. But when Johnny becomes entangled in blackmail, he struggles to balance loyalty, family and doing the right thing.
The zeitgeist of the period is captured perfectly, and Boomers will certainly soak up every cultural reference. By the end of the story, Johnny is removed by the welfare authority. Perhaps things were done differently fifty years ago, but it’s hard to imagine children being taken away from one parent when another is available and appears effective and responsible. This, however, does not detract from the gratifying conclusion.
Perhaps too, the author takes it a bit over the top and it seems somewhat contrived. But as the world tries to pick itself up from Covid-19 and political battles, a quick, easy and delightful read may be exactly what we need. Although darkened with the FLQ, a murder and a family implosion, it has a quaint, nostalgic afterglow: the coming-of-age charm of an eleven-year-old who can’t punctuate.
Letters from Johnny is published by Guernica Editions. It will be launched on April 1, 2021.
Marc Brown is an educator, devoted bibliophile and adventure traveller.