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October crisis looms in Claire Holden Rothman novel

Claire Holden Rothman spoke about her novel My October at Books and Breakfast in 2014. (Photo: Barbara Moser)

Claire Holden Rothman spoke about her novel My October at Books and Breakfast in 2014. (Photo: Barbara Moser)

For many Quebecers, October denotes more than the glorious colours of our fall foliage.

We remember the darkness of October 1970, when a British diplomat was kidnapped, a Quebec cabinet minister was murdered, and armed soldiers began patrolling our streets after Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act suspending civil liberties.

It was a time of terror and fear, especially when Pierre Laporte’s body was discovered in the trunk of a car in St. Hubert. But for then 12-year-old Claire Holden Rothman, it meant cancelled classes at Westmount High.

“No math!” is how the author of My October (Penguin Canada) recalled her reaction when she and classmates were trooped into the nearby Hillside Armoury during a bomb scare.

Of course it wasn’t a lark, and the family of former Liberal cabinet minister Victor Goldbloom – “very good friends of our family”, was advised to leave town. They moved to Boston, because they were believed to be on the FLQ hit list.

Years later, and after seeing Carl Leblanc’s documentary L’Otage (The Hostage), Rothman saw possibilities for a novel that would deepen our understanding of the politics and history, and humanize that period and its aftermath through a fictional family, back then and 31 years later.

The result is My October, her fascinating character-driven and beautifully crafted novel about Québécois author Luc Lévesque, his Anglo wife Hannah, and their 14 year-old son Hugo. They live in St. Henri and the marriage is crumbling, Lévesque is confronted with a mid-life crisis, Hugo faces identity and coming-of-age issues, and much of it reflects a changing Quebec society, with October 1970 and that turbulent period as a recurring back story. There is a gun.

It is a terrific read, and deftly juxtaposes our recent history, French/English inter-marriage, selective memory, identity, and family. While some Quebec nationalists view this period of bombs and terror as heroic, the novel reminds us that romanticizing these events obscures its victims and clouds objective truth.

Judging from the result, it is ideal territory for Rothman, who grew up in Westmount – a convenient symbol of Anglo privilege – graduated Law at McGill, and practiced as a lawyer before turning to her first love, the word.

She taught literature at McGill and Marianopolis College and worked as a prize-winning French-English translator. Her first book, The Heart Specialist (Soho Press), was long-listed for the Giller Prize in 2008, and My October was long-listed for the Giller and is short-listed for this year’s Governor General’s Award for fiction.

As Rothman sees it, My October asks basic questions:

“Who gets to tell the story of a life? Who gets to tell the story of a family, of a nation? What are the consequences of silencing ourselves or others? Who gets to decide what’s true, what’s false, what’s worthy of being remembered and passed on as history?”

Much of the action takes place in St. Henri, including actual streets and such popular hangouts as the Green Spot Café and a composite French private boys high school on Sherbrooke St.

Her own history is one of growing up in Westmount, daughter of lawyer Mel Rothman, a former justice of the Quebec Appeals Courts, and Joan Rothman, active schoolboard commissioner and Westmount councilor.

After Vanier College, and a B.A. in philosophy and B.C.L. degrees at McGill, where she sang in the Gilbert and Sullivan Society, Rothman began practicing law, but then dropped it to focus on translation and creative writing.

“I had my first child, and I didn’t want to be a lawyer and a mom, and trying to write at the same time when I had to pour 120 per cent of myself into a legal practice. I wanted to write stories.”

Her first book of stories coincided with the birth of her second son in 1990. She lives in Westmount with her husband, actor and playwright Arthur Holden.

“As soon as I quit law I became a CEGEP teacher.”

She had her M.A. in English from Concordia, where she wrote the first of a series of stories at university workshops, published as Salad Days. She followed up with Black Tulips.

As for the genesis of this book, Rothman notes that just before starting on it she had read Gabrielle Roy’s Bonheur d’Occasion (The Tin Flute).

“She was a Westmounter. She actually went down the hill to St. Henri and did all of this research for the book, and I did much of the same thing.

“My friend, Michael Rudder (a noted actor living on Laporte St.) said, ‘Come on down, I’ll give you a tour.’”

The book often references the geographical markers in Roy’s masterpiece.

In nuancing the history of the FLQ period, Rothman does something that is just beginning to happen in the literary treatment of the period, as in Louis Hamelin’s revealing October, 1970 (Arachnide Editions), translated by Wayne Grady.

“There’s a discomfort around the October Crisis. People were killed, people got hurt, people got abducted.”

Amir Khadir, a Québec Solidaire member of the National Assembly, scrapped a plan to table a motion in recognition of convicted FLQ kidnapper Paul Rose after his death. A party spokesman said it would “open up old wounds.”

“Do we call these people terrorists or political activists?” she asks.

“Bringing this into art, talking about this, getting people to talk about this and tell their stories from that period – that’s what this story is all about.”

Claire Holden Rothman spoke at the first Books & Breakfast series sponsored by Paragraphe Books and The Senior Times. The series continues Nov. 9 with Bruce Cockburn, Roch Carrier and Jean-Claude Germain. Nov. 16, writers Kim Thuy, Daniel Levitin, and Chantal Hébert will discuss their books. Tickets can be purchased at Paragraphe Bookstore, 2220 McGill College, with a credit card at 514-845-5811, or at the Westmount Public Library.

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