Toronto writer Anthony De Sa was only 11, but he remembers distinctly hearing the sound of a deadbolt turning on his front door, and thinking that the world order as he knew it had changed.
It was a hot summer day in 1977, and Mr. De Sa says his family always slept with the front door open – and unlocked – to let the house cool. But the close-knit Portuguese neighbourhood was frightened into taking precautions after news spread that 12-year-old Emanuel Jaques, a recent Portuguese immigrant, had disappeared. The shoeshine boy’s badly beaten body was found a few days later on the roof of a body rub parlour on Yonge Street.
Overnight Toronto the good had lost its shine.
The grisly murder left an indelible impression on Mr. De Sa, 47. His new novel Kicking The Sky revolves around that crime and its impact on the Portuguese community, the city at large and three young boys who decide to search for Emanuel’s body, in a coming-of-age story about hard truths and loss of innocence.
“I probably have been writing this book in my head since I was 11 years old,” says Mr. De Sa, an Etobicoke teacher-librarian who writes in the wee hours of the night after putting his three young boys to bed.
“I remember coming home, when the street lights turned on, after a long day of playing with my friends. It was the first time my mother yelled at me to bring the bike inside, instead of [leaving it] on the lawn. I thought that was strange. When I heard the lock on the door, it was my first recollection that something had gone terribly wrong.”
Police eventually charged four men with Emanuel’s murder. But the incident traumatized the city’s inhabitants, and led Mr. De Sa on his quest to write a book, trying to make sense out of something so senseless.
“I have always been struck by the way the neighbourhood virtually shut down,” says Mr. De Sa, whose first short story collection, Barnacle Love, was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. “Long evenings on front porches and late night meetings with neighbours ended. People didn’t trust each other any more and the tension was palpable.
“When this murder happened, my parents felt real guilt that they had to work so hard and yet they couldn’t protect us from what was going on out there.”
Mr. De Sa’s long-time pal and school friend, Ana Dutra Pavao, also remembers the paralyzing impact the boy’s death had on her and her family.
“It was my first summer working, as a student at St. Michael’s Hopsital, and I’d get off the streetcar at Yonge Street. I used to enjoy that walk. Now I walked with urgency, constantly checking over my shoulder to make sure no one was too close,” she says. “We were aware and scared that someone else could be next. At home, it was never spoken about. For many immigrants, like my parents, Canada was a place of new hope and a good, safe place to provide better for your family. Emanuel’s death was a betrayal. It took time for the Portuguese community to feel that sense of security in our lives again.”
John Cardoso, who grew up on Markham Street, south of Mirvish Village, also felt a seismic shift in his community after the slaying.
“My parents grew more protective, and there was no way we could go outside alone any more. I remember the protest rally [held by the Portuguese community demanding greater police presence]. It was the first time our friends and neighbours were civilly engaged. No one felt safe any more.”
Mr. De Sa, who already has another novel in the works, says it often saddens him that his three sons can’t have the freedom to roam the city as he did. “Lots has been written about how we now live in a bubble-wrap generation,” he says.
“The kind of parental absence we grew up with meant you learned to navigate the world in a realistic way. We were allowed to fall and make mistakes. I work in a high school, and while all our children are bright and wonderful, there is a real lack of independence, a sense of adventure that we had as kids.”