Review of the book and movie by Catherine Hernandez
Scarborough: A Novel, by Catherine Hernandez (2017)
Scarborough: A Film, written by Catherine Hernandez, directed by Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson (2021)
Catherine Hernandez pulls it all off in Scarborough: A Novel (2017), so much so that it’s difficult to know where to start. This is a deceptively simple book that delves deep, contains many layers, is both heartwarming and brutally sad. It is a portrait of a neighborhood in East Toronto circa 2012. More so, it is a portrait of that neighborhood’s children.
First, let’s show Scarborough some respect. Is it a neighborhood in East Toronto? Sure. But let’s not define it that way. Better to say Toronto is that place west of Scarborough. What is centre and what is margin? Scarborough: A Novel centres Scarborough, the place, especially the neighborhood around Kingston Road, Morningside and Lawrence.
Writing about childhood without sentimentality is a difficult chore. Few can pull it off. Hernandez does. Her novel reminded me of Roddy Doyle’s starkly working-class novels, Paddy Clarke, Ha, Ha, Ha (1993) and The Woman Who Walked into Doors (1996), an extension of a four-part TV project, Family (1994). Except where Doyle focused on a single child, or a single family, Hernandez gives us an ensemble cast—and a collection of ethnicities.
Unfolding over the course of the 2011-12 school year, the novel follows the lives of a group of children and the Program Facilitator of the Ontario Reads Literacy Program at the fictional Rouge Hill Public School, Hina Hassani. The school year frames the novel, and the literacy program is the space where the characters most commonly cross paths, but no single storyline dominates.
Which, of course, can make the book and film a challenge to follow, sometimes. Who am I supposed to be focusing on? Who am I supposed to care most about? Well, all of them. They are children in a community. Surely, you shouldn’t pick and choose. Each one is special, each one is precious. Each one has their own story, obstacles to confront, victories to seek, words to read, food to find.
I read the book before I watched the movie, which from the point of view of a bibliophile is the right way to do it. Frankly, it helped me to make sense of the movie, too. There are snippets of visual storytelling that I’m sure I would have missed if I didn’t know the element of the book the film was referencing. For example, one child’s father has a significant mental illness and he asks his son to pull a spike from his neck, but there is no spike. The child is terrified and confused. The moment in the film is fleeting, easily missed, as you try to sort out the different characters and the ways they are related. That father is never seen again, as the mother slips out of their home with the son to ensure their safety. That hurried evacuation is depicted in the film, just one housing insecurity example out of many experienced by the characters.
Insecurity, instability, lack of safety—these are common elements in many of the storylines. And it is the women, the mothers—of course—who are the heroes, the problem solvers, holding up far more than their half of the sky. Most of the mothers are heroes, anyway. One is a junkie who abandons her daughter in a bowling alley. The father, a former skinhead, is called at his job to go and pick her up. He does, and you might think now’s his chance to prove his mettle. In the film, you probably don’t think that, because it’s telegraphed he’s incapable. In the book, though, I had hope he would discover a new well of inner resources and be the man his daughter needed him to be. Not so.
The white women are also disasters. The film frames this clearly and subtlety. There’s a whole “white women are gatekeepers of the patriarchy” critique that could be made here, and should be, but that critique should not dominate the experience of the book/movie, which is a celebration of the other mothers—and their children—who persist and ensure the community, the collective as a whole, continues. Even if, sometimes, it’s just one day at a time.
In 1989, Tom Wolfe published “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” an essay that argued novelists should take a “reporting” approach, all to better articulate the unique, specific details of our fragmented spinning contemporary world. Wolfe himself said he took this approach in his novel, Bonfire of the Vanities (1987). Whether Wolfe pulled it off, others can argue. Unarguable is that Catherine Hernandez has done it, gone down to the ground and shown us a new foundation. A new perspective on our old, tired world. A world renewed, grounded in particulars.