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All in the family
on October 10, 2007
"Any Known Blood" is the story of Langston Cane V and his journey of discovery through five generations of an African American Canadian family living since the 1850s in either the US and Canada. Lawrence Hill's own background provided the inspiration and depth for this multilayered family saga that he weaves like a rich tapestry of characters, places and events. The language is personal and direct, the protagonist's account of his quest interlaced with excerpts from his forebears' diaries or letters and enriched with lively and witty dialog.
Hill's narrator, Langston, recently divorced and having just lost his job, is unsure who he is. He can no longer pretend that his black-white racial heritage is of little importance to him. He begins hoping that reconnecting with his past might provide some answers his search for identity. The story moves fluidly between Langston's present life that includes some minor dramas and discoveries about the previous four Langstons. His father, who had defied the Cane family tradition by marrying a white Canadian woman, is a major public figure and anti-racist activist, as well as a medical doctor in his hometown, Oakville, Ontario. Oakville was once the end of the Underground Railroad that enabled many, such as Langston I, to escape slavery in the USA. Langston the Fourth is a great story teller who has been imparting family legends of each generation of Canes, one story at the time.
Seeking out the missing elements in the father's accounts of the past, Langston moves temporarily to Baltimore, where his aunt, Millicent, estranged from her family for many years, has much to contribute to his search - if she is willing to talk to him at all. "Mill" is quite a character and wonderfully contradictory. She is torn between her love for family and growing affection for the nephew and her rejection of inter-racial marriages and their offspring. Langston is introduced to much of daily life by his new friend, Yoyo, a refugee from Cameroon. The description of Baltimore locales and its people is vibrant and entertaining, Langston's encounters with Mill are quite hilarious. Recording the findings of his family research, Langston embarks on writing the novel.
Historical events, such as the attempted take-over of Harpers Ferry by John Brown, are integrated with ease into the story, as are historical figures like Brown himself and Frederick Douglass, known for their different approaches to abolition. His description of the actual Ku-Klux-Klan attack in Ontario at the time of Langston's grandfather is hauntingly realistic. Details are as factual as possible with Hill clarifying any fictional adaptations he made for the benefit of his novel.
"Any Known Blood" is a beautifully crafted and engaging novel that brings many voices to life, fictionalized and real, set against the backdrop of factual events that shaped African American as well as Canadian history. [Friederike Knabe]