In his debut novel, Colvin tracks three generations of an African Canadian family hailing from the fictional settlement of Woods Bluff in Nova Scotia, a dizzyingly diverse community founded in the 18th century by itinerant Americans, bold Africans, and rebellious Caribbean blacks.
We enter this world in 1918 alongside Kath Ella Sebolt, a bright young girl who soon earns a scholarship to attend college in Montreal. As she drifts away from Woods Bluff, she gets close to Omar Platt, an exiled African American from Mississippi. Kath eventually becomes pregnant with Omar's son, Little Omar. But with Omar out of the picture, and her life firmly set in Montreal, Kath marries a white man named Timothee, who adopts Little Omar as his own. Renamed Etienne, Little Omar struggles with his racial identity. He becomes an academic, has a son of his own, and moves to Alabama, where he and his son, Warner, must reckon with racial realities and their family history. Colvin's storytelling ranges back and forth in time, unearthing his fictional community's history, examining everything from the uses of baby dolls to cure fevers to the origins of the phrase "You're a lying crow." This results in an exploration of how time and migration can change a family and impact its experience of race, but it can also turn the narrative into a confused jumble of incidents. Important characters like Kiendra, Kath's prankster friend whose antics doom her, are too thinly drawn to have the impact Colvin intends. Meanwhile, time that could be used to round out these characters is spent on detours that don't pay off. Colvin's prose can also plod. A scene in which Kath throws a rock to avenge Kiendra's fate means to stun the reader but mostly frustrates. "The rock descends toward the window, moving and tumbling and cutting....A fraction of an inch before the window pane, the rock's leading edge shakes off the last bit of dust, the last length of spider filament, the last bit of rat's hair..."
A promising debut that aims high but stumbles.