In the Blog
Book Review: Elizabeth Hawksworth’s Lake Effect
Illustration: Erin McPhee
Elizabeth’s Hawksworth’s Lake Effect is a revelation, pure and simple. It’s just a whole lot of goodness packed into a sweet series of vignettes whose brevity make them easy to read during a daily commute or just as you’re drifting off to sleep. This lovely little book is full of wonderful prose, the kind made of very particularly chosen words neatly laid out like a row of dominoes, is made all the better by the fact that it tackles a series of difficult subjects framed against the background of historical Toronto.
Toronto’s history isn’t something that we’re very good at, is it? As a city, we’re better at tearing old things down than we are at preserving them. We’re better at putting up gleaming new skyscrapers than we are restoring our gorgeous old buildings. And, such as in the case of the rows upon rows of enormous condominiums springing up along our waterfront, we’re better at keeping our riches hidden and apart than we are at making them accessible for everyone. This idea – accessibility – might be the real wonder in Hawksworth’s book. She’s constructed a history of Toronto – with a specific lens on women’s role in the history of this city – that is written in a style available and accessible to anyone. It is also inclusive of women of various sexualities and racial and ethnic backgrounds – not least of all Hawksworth herself, who makes an appearance in a brief autobiographical short story, and whose grandfather is Chippewa.
The stories that Hawksworth weaves are engaging and interesting, and they lay out pieces of the city’s history in a way that doesn’t talk down to readers but also doesn’t assume that they have any foreknowledge of Toronto or its past. She creates richly-detailed landscapes and then peoples them with sympathetic characters – like Sarah, a woman locked up in the Lakeshore Psychiatric Asylum for her hysterical pregnancy, or Jenny, who longs to see a jazz singer on stage at Massey Hall, or else Anna, who struggles with her desire to be a doctor in the face of overwhelming social pressure to become a housewife - characters who will slowly steal little five-minute bits of your heart. She tells this city’s story through personal narratives that are convey a remarkable amount information but are totally lacking in clunky exposition (in fact, she helps avoid exposition by adding brief historical notes at the end of some chapters). She makes history come alive, rather than just setting out rote facts the way so many texts do. Because of this, I think it’s safe to say that someone who is intimately familiar with Toronto’s history will enjoy Hawksworth’s writing just as much as someone whose only associations with this city are the CN Tower and our lamentable hockey team.
So do yourself a favour and pick up this book. I promise that you’ll savour the time you spend exploring themes such as feminisms, sexualities, immigration and relationships within the context of Toronto the Good. By the time you reach the end of the final story, you’ll be asking yourself why there aren’t more to come.