a review by Arielle Aaronson
It’s been over 40 years since Quebec’s October Crisis. Forty years since civil liberties were suspended, since police marched the streets making sweeping arrests, since two government officials were kidnapped and one was murdered. Forty years can feel like an awful long time – especially if you’re a teenager whose parents weren’t even born at that point.
But with her young adult novel 21 Days in October, Magali Favre hopes to remind today’s teenagers that the effects of October 1970 still reverberate throughout the province. A former teacher herself, Favre’s story is historically and geographically accurate and makes for an engaging read – especially if you are familiar with Montreal in the 21st century.
From the factory floor of the Dominion Textile Company to the back lanes and overcrowded apartments of the Faubourg à m’lasse, Favre vividly recreates the colourful atmosphere of the 1970s and plunges the reader into the thick of the action. The book opens just as the War Measures Act is being implemented, as the protagonist, Gaétan, will quickly discover. By the end of the first chapter, Gaétan’s best friend is carted off to jail and the world has taken on a much more sinister air.
Magali Favre is not out to revolutionize young adult fiction or take daring risks with language here. Instead, 21 Days in October is about connecting teenagers today with yesterday’s struggles as Quebec teetered on the edge of massive change. Language politics are ever-present as one character after the other expresses resentment over being forced to work in English. Residents of the Faubourg talk of the demolitions their neighbourhood is facing, while politicians are busy building a new face for Montreal.
The reader can even sense that the educational system will face an overhaul; the factory workers who left school at fourteen and fifteen are juxtaposed with the new generation of politicized CEGEP students desperately searching for change. And throughout the book it becomes clear that Gaétan, like Quebec, will not end the month of October the same as he began it.
The book brings together a bit of a love story and a bit of a mystery without ever really tying up loose ends. But what I loved is its honest portrayal of a naïve fifteen-year-old who, over the course of the narrative, slowly develops his own opinion of what defines his Montreal. Magali Favre has written Gaétan’s parents at opposing ends of the political spectrum: his father is a rabble-rouser demanding change while his mother is a staunch Drapeau supporter. And just as any teenager would, Gaétan feels caught between them. (“Gaétan feels like a slice of baloney stuck between two pieces of bread. And it’s getting more and more uncomfortable.”) But by the end of the twenty-one days, Gaétan has a much better sense of what he wants for his city, as well as what he wants for his future.
21 Days in October is a true coming-of-age novel set against a politically charged backdrop. And sometimes it takes a good story to remind us of where we’ve come from. Forty years wasn’t so long ago, after all. ≈
From 21 Days in October
by Magali Favre
≈ translated by Arielle Aaronson (Baraka Books, 2013)
Saturday, October 17
Gaétan is woken violently by his father’s shouting. The two bunk beds are empty. His brothers are nowhere to be seen. He didn’t hear them go to bed or get up. It’s light outside. He’s definitely slept around the clock.
He can hear a nasal voice coming from the television.
The kidnappers could have abducted anyone: you, me, or even a child…
Who is saying such things? The boy pulls on a t-shirt and jeans and makes his way into the living room. His father is already on the couch, a beer resting between his knees.
“Can you believe this? The idiot that’s supposed to be governing us decided to frighten everyone. He’s saying we might have an uprising on our hands.”
Gaétan recognizes Trudeau in the centre of the small screen. In his cold and cutting voice, the Prime Minister of Canada is defending his decision to invoke the War Measures Act.
“Tomorrow, the victim might be a bank manager, a farmer, a child…”
“He doesn’t know what he’s talking about! The FLQ is going after the politicians, not just anyone.”
“You know them, Pop?”
“No, but I know a bunch of guys who’re damned worked up. They’re frustrated by the lack of progress. Last election, the PQ won hardly any seats compared to the votes they had. It’s just like Lévesque said; we’re in a madhouse and they’re laughing at us. We’re sick of always having to go crawling to Ottawa.”
Gaétan can’t handle his father’s tantrums. But the haughty, arrogant, insensitive man who’s speaking on the television irks him even more. He has the look of a snake, and Gaétan has no idea where he gets all those well-turned sentences — certainly not from the Faubourg à m’lasse.
“Feels good to sleep?” his mother calls from the kitchen. “There’s some coffee left, want some?”
Gaétan joins her.
“Yeah, and I’ll take some bacon and eggs too. I’m hungry. Are the boys already in the back lane?”
“Yeah, lucky kids. I need some air, too. I can’t listen to the news any longer. Your father hasn’t moved from his damned TV since the kidnappings. The sooner they find them, the better. This is all just ridiculous.”
Gaétan doesn’t answer. He doesn’t want to get caught in the middle of his parents’ argument. Lately there’s been an explosion at every turn.
His father has been part of a neighbourhood association since last spring. There have been so many demolitions in the Faubourg that it seems the residents are living in a war zone or going through their own Acadian Deportation. Businesses are dropping like flies. Monsieur Pintal’s grocery, at the corner of Sainte-Catherine and de la Visitation, is also on the verge of closing. Countless families are having to move. Even Delorimier Stadium, where the neighbourhood used to go watch the Royals play baseball, has been torn down.
His father often recalls how during Expo ’67 Mayor Drapeau had billboards put up to hide the slums from the tourists, just waiting to have them destroyed and sell the land off to developers. It’s the same old story: the working-class neighbourhoods get no consideration.
“They’re ashamed of us!” he says over and over.
Since he’s been unemployed, he spends all his time working to bring down the mayor in the upcoming elections, which are to be held in a few days. Now with the recent events, he’s always on edge.
But all this energy spent campaigning doesn’t put bread on the table. And for Gaétan’s mother, times are tough.
“My man does nothing but build castles in the sky,” she often sighs.
≈ ≈ ≈
As soon as he downs his breakfast, Gaétan heads to Luc’s mother’s house to see if she has heard anything new. A note is stuck to the door: Luc still isn’t home. I’m going back to Parthenais.Knowing Mme Maheu, Gaétan has a feeling that she’ll be going back every day. Until she has news of her son, they haven’t seen the last of her.
The boy walks down Sainte-Catherine, the neighbourhood’s most commercial street. The shop windows are decorated with pumpkins, witches, and skeletons stuck to cobwebs. In two weeks, it will be Halloween. Gaétan hasn’t worn a costume in two years – he’s too old – but he wouldn’t miss this night for the world. So he helps his two brothers prepare their costumes and takes them around from door to door. It’s Gaétan’s favourite holiday of the year. He’s already drooling, thinking of the mountain of Kisses he’ll devour.
In front of the Beaudry metro station, four soldiers stand guard. “It looks like they’ve already found their costumes,” he says to himself. “Candy will have a funny taste this year.”
At the newsstand in front of the metro, the headlines of the Journal de Montréal catch his eye: “250 Arrests in One Day!” and “Pauline Julien Jailed Too.”
“A singer! They’ve gone mad!” he thinks.
Until Luc’s arrest, Gaétan hadn’t paid attention to what was going on. Suddenly, it all seems crazy to him. He had just started working when the first kidnapping occurred – the British diplomat, James Cross – and he hadn’t fully realized what was happening. And since he works nights and sleeps during the day, the opposite of everyone else, he hasn’t seen things getting worse.
For the first time in his life, he decides to buy a newspaper.
“Ten cents to try to understand what’s going on won’t break me.”
≈ ≈ ≈
The CSN building stands at the corner of Saint-Denis and Viger. That’s where Paul works, Luc’s friend that he was told to warn. But it’s Saturday and the receptionist isn’t there. Gaétan walks over to the elevator.
A list of the officers is posted, but Gaétan realizes he doesn’t even know Paul’s last name. At any rate, there is no Paul on the list.
Recently Gaétan ran into Paul at his friend’s house. Luc told him that he had met the union leader on a picket line. Paul was distributing leaflets demanding the right to work in French, so Luc got it into his head to switch unions from the FTQ to the CSN. But since it wouldn’t be so easy to convince the other workers, Paul asked Luc to come along to the union training sessions to get a better grip on the labour laws.
“It’s normal to want to work in your language,” Luc often argued.
Two men suddenly walk out of the elevator, whose doors stand open in front of him. He enters without thinking, but where should he go? Which office on what floor? Gaétan turns around and runs after the two men.
“’Scuse me, do you know someone named Paul?”
“There are loads of Pauls, kid.”
“I don’t know his last name, but he has red hair.”
“Ah, that one! I haven’t seen him in a couple of weeks.”
“I think he’s gone to Abitibi to organize some workers,” his colleague explains.
Disappointed, Gaétan leaves the building and goes across the street to sit on the steps of the Saint-Sauveur church. He opens his newspaper.
He is so absorbed in his reading that he doesn’t notice the young woman who sits down behind him. She cranes her neck to read over his shoulder.
“So, what’s your newspaper say?”
Gaétan whips around and blushes when he sees that the girl is so close to him. Big black eyes, short, cropped hair and a cape that swallows her whole. She looks ripped from a picture book.
“Cat got your tongue? Québec’s finally moving! You don’t think it’s too much, do you?”
“Soldiers in the streets and all, does that excite you?”
“That’s just to scare us. Me and the other students, we’re striking to show our support for the political prisoners.”
“Where have you been?”
“I live in the Faubourg à m’lasse and I work at Dominion Textile. That ok with you?”
“I didn’t mean to give you a hard time!”
“Yeah well, too late!”
Gaétan folds his paper and continues up Saint-Denis.
“She might be cute, but she thinks she’s hot stuff,” he grumbles to himself, walking.
He turns around at the corner of Sainte-Catherine and Berri, just in time to glimpse a piece of black cape slipping through the door of the metro. ≈
21 Days in October is available directly from Baraka Books.