As we all know, working in the arts pays less than nothing most of the time. Most writers (and editors) have to have supplemental income, and with this aim in mind, I began substitute teaching last year. My school district is huge, encompassing white as well as “urban” neighborhoods, much like the landscape of Catherine Hernandez’s deeply-felt novel, Scarborough. I see the disenfranchised and immigrant children she describes daily. I feed the littler ones breakfast, like Ms Hina does. And I wonder if they can survive what’s been done to the country in which they landed.
Ms Hina is a recent university graduate whose first job is as a facilitator for a literacy program in a Toronto primary school, but any position involving children proves to be far more than its description. Among her charges are Laura, Bing, and Bing’s best friend, Sylvie. Laura has been neglected by her mother and obtained by her father, Cory, who knows even less about raising a child. Bing is a gay Filipino boy living with both parents, but his father is mentally ill. Sylvie is a Native girl whose family is struggling to find a place to live. Ms Hina slowly works past the prejudice of parents, careless bureaucrats, and the diversity of her children to forge a welcoming atmosphere for all.
However, any description of this novel will fall short. Just like the job it tracks, it’s more than the sum of its parts. A skilled writer, Hernandez uses all the emotion at her disposal to create deft, indelible portraits of these children and their parents. Once she has them onstage, she lets them interact with each other and shades those relationships as they develop organically. Nothing about Scarborough feels contrived or manipulative despite its range of emotions, and I never once heard the author instead of the characters.
Although all of Hernandez’s people are real and interesting, Laura’s father and Bing were particularly noteworthy. Cory aches to do right by his little girl and knows how she’s suffered from her mother’s inattention, but he simply doesn’t have the skills. And he’s too afraid to ask, automatically discounting Ms Hina because she wears a hijab. Bing is a fearless little boy who came out at an early age with the full support of his mother and extended family. But even with that love behind him, nothing can compare to the freedom he feels when he takes a Whitney Houston tape to karaoke and makes his statement to the world:
Just as the chorus began again, I jumped to my feet, ripped off my button up shirt and revealed my pink-sequined halter top. Everyone cheered. Under the auditorium lights, I felt the sweat on my arms both cooling and accumulating. Riding the wave of a sustained note, I felt my insides shine like a light beaming from my throat and through every finger. Truth. Truth. It felt like confetti. It felt like running. It felt like screaming. Me. Truth. Truth.
The details of Bing’s story are unimportant. We have all been Bing. We still are, really. It’s the screaming of that truth that’s important, now more than ever.
From Ms Hina’s epistolary battle with her supervisor to the tragedy of an apartment fire, Scarborough is an engrossing read that’s a lot like its cover. Hernandez sets us running down that subway corridor, anxious for what comes around the next corner. Heartbreak, to be sure. But also unexpected joys and big lessons. Highly recommended.
© 2017, Jerry L. Wheeler