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Telling their story

Bestselling author Lawrence Hill visited the Peace Region to research his upcoming novel
Lawrence Hill reads from The Illegal for a small group of literature enthusiasts on May 10. Hill is researching the Alaska Highway and the contribution African American soldiers made during its construction. “I’m very interested in not just the creation of the Alaska Highway, but also the role thousands of black soldiers, some of who lost their lives in the process,” he says.

A crowd of about 40 people was gathered in the living room of Connie and Brian Surerus on a Wednesday night. Many were clutching books, some novels, some non-fiction, but all written by the same man—Canadian author Lawrence Hill.

The group came together for a private reading by the writer of The Book of Negroes and The Illegal as he makes his way up the Alaska Highway to research his upcoming novel on the African American soldiers who were integral to the highway’s construction.

“I’m very interested in not just the creation of the Alaska Highway, but also the role thousands of black soldiers, some of who lost their lives in the process,” he said.

Few people east of the Peace Region are aware of just how many black soldiers the U.S. sent to B.C. after the bombing of Pearl Harbour, said Hill—even he wasn’t aware of their work until about eight years ago.

Hill said he heard about the work of the African American soldiers while moderating a panel of historians, where one of the panelists presented a video about the highway and its construction.

He felt their story was one he absolutely needed to tell.

“I was just dumbstruck, and the minute he spoke—and I read his essay before the conference began—I thought, that’s my next novel. That’s such an amazing story,” he said.

Hill is the son of Daniel and Donna Hill, who fled the southern United States the day after getting married in 1953 and came to Canada, where they hoped they could live as an interracial couple.

Both his father and grandfather were soldiers in the U.S. army; his grandfather served in France during the First World War and his father was a sergeant for work crews in the Second World War. He’d grown up hearing the stories of the hardships that faced African American soldiers.

“On the one hand, of course, he’s good enough to die for the war effort, good enough to die maybe at the hands of the enemy, perhaps in the cold of Fort St. John; good enough to die and spend your years and energy doing this work, but not good enough to live in an integrated, free, equitable situation in your own country after the war or before,” he said.

He noted these soldiers were constantly reminded of their second-class status as their living conditions and equipment were far worse than those of the white soldiers.

“It must have been incredible to have built that highway and be aware that at one moment you’re working and living in segregated conditions, that your equipment, your living conditions, your treatment was infinitely worse than that offered to white soldiers,” he said.

Hill read an excerpt from his most recent novel, The Illegal, where he addresses the idea that even existing is breaking the law—as is often the case with people who enter another country illegally.

Hill shared the story of a Sudanese refugee his sister fell in love with, who came through the Berlin Wall from East Germany into West Germany, and who had no legal status once he arrived.

“Can you imagine how hard it is in a country as regimented as Canada or Germany to get your life together with no legal papers allowing you to do anything? Open a bank account, drive a car, work, rent an apartment—I mean, you need papers for everything,” he said.

At the time he was doing his research and writing the novel, he said, he never would have imagined the attitudes towards immigrants and refugees would become so polarizing as it has over the last year.

“I had lots to work with and draw from without even thinking about American politics when I was writing the novel,” said Hill. “It’s obviously disturbing to me, the extremes, to see some of the things that I worried might seem too far fetched with the novel actually coming to pass today.”

He also read a paragraph from The Book of Negroes, his bestseller that was turned into an award-winning mini series for CBC in 2015.

He shared his own insecurities as a writer, such as being amazed when people show up to events he’s speaking at, even now as a bestselling novelist.

“The road to becoming a writer is so fraught, it’s so insecure, and it’s so entrepreneurial,” he said. 

“There’s hardly anything more entrepreneurial than deciding to spend five years on project that lies in your imagination and you have no guarantee of a payoff, an audience, a publisher, a readership, serious sales—you don’t even know if the book will see the light of day, and you’re willing to believe in your imagination and go.”

As for when the public can expect the novel about the Alaska Highway’s construction, Hill has quite a lot more research to do on it.

“It usually takes me a few years to write a book, so please don’t hold your breath.”