In Any Known Blood, Langston Cane V sets out for Baltimore "to reconstruct the lives of his ancestors" after being fired from his speech writing job. He is the son of a white mother and a black father, who's a prominent member of the community. Once in Baltimore, Langston visits his estranged Aunt Mill and discovers that she has boxes of family documents dating way back. As he gathers the information he's after, he writes the narrative of his family history.
I adored this book. It's a sensational look at blacks in Canada and across the border in the eastern United States as they overcome adversity and fight for their rights and dignity. Starting in the present and working back through time, Langston learns about the first four Langston Canes. I loved the structure that Hill used to tell the story. It's presented chronologically, but in reverse, just like if you'd be investigating your own family tree. He starts in the present with information about himself, then links it to his father, Langston Cane IV; which leads him to his grandfather, Langston Cane III; then his great-grandfather, Langston Cane II; and finally his great-great-grandfather, Langston Cane, the first.
You'd think with 5 of the characters named Langston Cane, it might get a little confusing. But it isn't at all. The book is masterfully constructed in that Hill introduces the historical sections by having Langston V uncovering a past event through another character or document. The reader is lead gently from present to past and back again. Hill leaves lots of clues about time period for the reader. It also helps that the present day sections are written in the first person while those in the past are written in the third person.
The book is filled with tons of great characters besides the five Langston Canes. Yoyo was one of my favourites. His "people of pigment" article for the Toronto Times (pages 257-259) was hilarious. I was also quite fond of Aunt Mill. She was a tough one to like at first, but she eventually warmed up to Langston V and helped him uncover the past.
I've never been a history buff or even liked history that much, but I find that the more historical fiction I read, the more interesting it becomes. Because of this book, I was prompted to look up John Brown and his raid in Harper's Valley, Virginia (The first Langston Cane was supposedly one of Brown's men in the raid, fictionally of course). Fascinating stuff.
The "Acknowledgement" and "A Word About History" sections at the back of the book are both enlightening and well done. I appreciate the amount of research that goes into books with historical portions. Amazing.
I love coming across new words. I've actually heard this one before, but I didn't know what it was.
New word alert: Scrapple (from page 262) - According Wikipedia: Scrapple (Pennsylvania Dutch) is traditionally a mush of pork scraps and trimmings combined with cornmeal and flour, often buckwheat flour and spices.
I was surprised that this wasn't a new book from Hill, but an older one that was reissued. I guess his other books are becoming more popular after his success with The Book of Negroes. That book, by the way, is one of my all-time favourites ( my review).
For more information about this book, please visit the HarperCollins Canada website.
For more information about the author and his other books, please visit Lawrence Hill's website.
I'd like to thank those nice people at HarperCollins Canada for this review copy.
Any Known Blood by Lawrence Hill, HarperCollins, ©1997. ISBN 9781554685080(Trade Paperback), 505p.