Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Republic of Nothing

Fredericton, NB : Goose Lane, 2007, c1994.

A Nova Scotia book for the Canadian Book Challenge, I first read this back in university when I was fixated on reading novels about or set in the 60's. I greatly enjoyed it then, and this reprint, signed by Choyce, is nicely repackaged and even came with a membership card to the Republic! I've seen it promoted as a YA novel, probably because the main character is primarily telling us his coming-of-age story, but I would classify it as an adult novel suitable for recommending to the right teenager.

It tells the story of Whalebone Island and its small, unique population. Whalebone is a biggish island separated only by a small bridge from the mainland of Nova Scotia. The story begins with the birth of Ian McQuade, our narrator. When Ian is born, his father decides they need to celebrate by declaring independence, so sends a letter proclaiming such to the government of Canada and to the UN, naming themselves The Republic of Nothing. As Ian says, his father Everett McQuade "declared the independence of Whalebone Island on March 21, 1951, the day I was born. It was a heady political time even on the Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia. New, pint-size nations were emerging all over forgotten corners of the globe and my old man decided that the flowering of independence should not pass us by.”

However, as the story continues, Everett finds himself drawn into provincial politics, and Ian watches him change from an anarchist to a politician in serious contention for Premier. As a politician Everett lives in Halifax while his family stays behind on the island. Ian spends his days observing his little sister Casey, his new age-y mother and her intense friendship with a recent addition to the island, their other neighbours, and especially Gwen Phillips, who has been the love of his life ever since she and her family fled the US and found refuge on Whalebone when Ian was 5. He also keeps his eye on his so-called friend, Burnet, who is a mean, ill-tempered brute but who is nevertheless extremely popular in their high school. The dangerous and sexy Burnet ends up with Gwen, getting her pregnant before leaving to enlist in the US. The novel tackles many historical issues, ie: the anti-Vietnam War movement in the US, draft dodgers in Canada, sex and the availability of legal abortion, and even environmental degredation. It also covers much emotional landscape: family loyalty, friendship, integrity, tolerance, and True Love. It deals with rebellion, and the individual need to find a moral path through life. It's a book jam-packed with discussion points for classrooms or for bookclubs, but more importantly, it is a great read. The McQuade family and the inhabitants of the eccentric Whalebone Island are quirky, but not overly so, and the story is so focused on character that all the world events Ian stumbles into do not overwhelm. He comes across as a thoughtful, mild young man with a mystical mother and a firecracker of a father, who is enough of an observer to give us a mostly impartial view of everyone he meets. My only reservation about Ian is that he seems to let things happen to him, for the most part. I would have liked to see him act with more agency near the end of the book.
However, this was an enjoyable reread from an astonishingly prolific author and musician. I was delighted to receive this reissue compliments of Goose Lane and kindly inscribed by Lesley Choyce, who was gracious despite my highly incoherent comment of "I love this book!"


  1. Sounds like a book I might enjoy. Thank you for posting about it.

  2. I've not heard of this one, but it sounds delicious!

  3. Sounds good! I'll look for it!

    I read his "Driving Minnie's Piano" last summer and loved it!


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