Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
By far one of the best short novels from a Canadian small press in the last year, Letters from Johnny by Ottawa's Wayne Ng takes the reader on a nostalgic journey combining family dynamics, national politics and the vibe of Toronto’s emerging multicultural scene.
Our protagonist, 11-year-old Johnny Wong, grows up in downtown Toronto. A big-time hockey fan, he is the epitome of a first-generation Canadian kid who mediates his immigrant Chinese parents’ “otherness” with his full spring into Canadian society. School is the interface between his two worlds. His Waspy but kind-hearted teacher, who fawns over Pierre Elliott Trudeau, takes an interest in the boy and encourages him to improve his English by writing letters to a pen pal. And who better to write to than his hero, Dave Keon, captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs. So begins the first letters/chapters of the novel in a language so pock-marked by misspellings and grammatical deviations that a little guessing is required as to the meaning of the text. But that is part of the brilliance of Wayne Ng’s work. As Johnny begins to master written English, he also deepens his understanding of the world around him.
Set in 1970, this epistolary narrative delightfully combines everyday occurrences, the mysterious death of a neighbour and the political drama of the FLQ crisis in Quebec. Johnny’s father has left the family to work out West, without any indication of ever returning. Johnny’s male adult role model defaults to Rollie, an American draft dodger, who despite some degree of shadiness and, perhaps, a romantic interest in Johnny’s mom, looks out for the young kid and helps him with his writing. But Rollie isn't always there to protect Johnny, and the boy must learn on his own how to deal with the hard knocks of life. These include being bullied at school and repeated visits from a social worker, seemingly intent on taking Johnny away from his mother. The young boy soon becomes distracted by the death of his neighbour, Meany Ming. He sets out to solve the crime and his suspicions fall on another neighbour, the Catwoman. When he tries to break into his feline-loving neighbour’s house to find clues, he is betrayed. The ensuing trouble with the law increases the likelihood that the Children’s Welfare Society will take him away from his mother. All this against the backdrop of the FLQ crisis in Quebec, by which Johnny is fascinated to the point of writing a new set of empathetic letters to Jean, the son of kidnapped politician Pierre Laporte. As if Johnny’s life isn’t challenging enough, his father returns home with a progeny from a relationship with another woman.
Readers will enjoy Letters from Johnny. There is little not to enjoy. On one level, it is entertaining light fiction and a fast read. You are into the story by the end of the first chapter. For those of us who were old enough to remember the impact of the October 1970 Crisis on the nation, there is a nostalgic pull to the novel. On another level, the story relates many overt social behaviours of the period, which persist in more nuanced terms today: institutional distrust of impoverished single mothers to care of their children; adults “othering” immigrant children in paternalistic ways, and perhaps through lenses of white privilege; kids bullying other kids on the basis of race; and acceptance being conditioned by the mastery of English. The author, Wayne Ng, is a social worker in a local school system, and I am sure he could speak volumes to the issues he has so masterly woven into his novel.
Personally, I also enjoyed the setting of the novel in the neighbourhood where I usually stay when visiting Toronto. It took me a long time to appreciate Toronto as a city, but now it is one of my favourite cities, and Letters from Johnny was a nice reminder that I should soon pay Toronto another visit.
Letters from Johnny is published by Guernica Editions.