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first person


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Everyone, they say, has their white whale. A lifelong obsession. Something you’re always pursuing but can never quite catch, something which hovers just beyond your grasp, just over the next rise. Perhaps a family recipe or the twin to your favourite mitten. Mine is a time-travel, fan-fiction “novel” I wrote, in elementary school, about the Confederation of Canada.

I’ve trawled through every hard drive, every floppy disk and USB I own, in search of this ill-advised literary effort. I can’t explain, exactly, why I want to find it so badly. Part of me thinks it will reveal something profound about my early years of living in a new country; part of me thinks it would just be hilariously awful.

It had been a few years since we’d moved from India – where we lived in a sleepy, verdant exurb of Chennai – to the relatively bustling town of London, Ont. My parents had long workdays as they tried their best to carve out a life for us in this new country; the basement apartment we were renting, in a rundown student neighbourhood, was like an icebox during the winter, and I’d mope around, wrapped in a quilt, freezing and bored to tears. Their solution was to take me to the public library in the mornings, leave me there for the day and pick me up when they were done work.

The library was a paradise. I’d always liked reading – my parents are both English academics – but I’d been limited to our personal collection in India. Now, I had hours of free time, no distractions and a seemingly infinite repository of books. I was a 12-year-old glutton in an all-you-can-eat buffet. I read more than I ever had before and, I think, more than I ever have since. I read so much that, at my elementary school reading club, the teachers didn’t believe me; I had to bring in my library receipts and answer their questions about each title.

Quality and genre didn’t concern me. I devoured it all – down-market paperbacks, highbrow literary fiction, Victorian-era classics, comics, books with dragons on the cover, pink books marketed at teen girls, enormous hardcover tomes in six parts. All their improbable premises blur together in my memory, into one kaleidoscopic, fever-dream explosion of anthropomorphic creatures and sorcery and spaceships and eldritch horrors and assassinations and Vikings and so on.

Inevitably, this monomania for literature began to seep into other aspects of my life. After I read Tarzan of the Apes, I would leap from one piece of rickety prefab furniture to the next; thanks to Harriet the Spy, I kept a notebook which recorded, in pathological detail, the daily activities of our innocent, kindly neighbours. I was, and remain, highly susceptible to fictional characters. Even today, after reading a Raymond Chandler novel, I find myself wanting to clamp a cigar between my teeth and brood by a rain-swept window.

All this came to a head in my Canadian history class. We were studying the origins of Canada, which, as birth-of-a-nation stories go, was really quite peaceful. From what I remember, a group of old men asked for and were granted independence from Great Britain. Then they milled about and conferred politely and drank whisky for a few years until our great nation was formed.

Of course, being the insufferable brat that I was, this didn’t satisfy me. Instead of penning a pleasant little write-up about What Being Canadian Means To Me like everyone else, I asked if I could research and write a work of historical fiction. The teacher, impressed by my initiative, patted me on the back and gave me the go-ahead. I’m sure he looks back on that as one of the bigger mistakes of his career.

It started, innocuously enough, with a lightly embellished telling of the 1864 Charlottetown Conference. Speeches were made, reputations heightened, arguments hashed out. I skimmed a few Wikipedia articles to get the general drift, and then set to work on my magnum opus, visions of the Pulitzer swimming before me.

But some 50 delirious pages later, when I’d finally arrived at the Union of the Dominion of Canada, I was bored. My characters were dull, samey, old-fashioned and all they cared about was politics. Confederation, I decided, needed a little spice, and here all the books I’d been reading began to insinuate themselves.

Canada’s founding fathers were subjected to the ravages of my overactive imagination. William Alexander Henry, whose house is today an official historic site in Nova Scotia, became a sleeper agent for a mysterious underground organization. Étienne-Paschal Taché, responsible for Quebec’s provincial motto, turned into some sort of sinister mind-controlling wizard. And John A. Macdonald, whose statues stand proud all over the country, was embroiled in an elaborate time-travel scheme which would result, of course, in the end of the world as we knew it.

The prose flowed, unhampered by editing, reason or good taste. I distinctly remember my teacher’s look of horror when I went to him with this monstrous sheaf of loose A4 paper, filled margin-to-margin with text and requested an extension. Other teachers would ask, reverentially, to see it, and I’d present them with this thorough desecration of our national history with the smug panache of a celebrity chef.

I never finished it – I thought that no ending could do it justice – and I’ve never been able to find it. Perhaps the spirits of the founding fathers rose up in protest and erased it from my computer. I’ve considered asking my old history teacher about it, but I don’t think I could handle the embarrassment.

My local library is emptier these days than it used to be. I rarely go there myself. These days, I read mainly on my Kindle, technology which would have sent my younger self into fits of excitement. I’ve been to the Bodleian in Oxford, and I’ve seen the vast expanses of the New York Public Library. But I’ll never forget how much I loved that dinky little town library. In a new country, where everything was uncertain, and I was, for the first time in my life, a foreigner; when my parents were stressed, and our house was cold, and I missed my friends, I could always lose myself in the incomparable pleasures of a good book, and even, on a whim, rewrite history itself.

Richard Joseph lives in London, Ont.