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Chelene Knight’s Junie resonates through its language and history

Chelene Knight by Jon McRae
Chelene Knight's debut novel, Junie, takes readers back into a lost part of Vancouver. Photo by Jon McRae.

Review: Junie

By Chelene Knight. Book*hug Press, paperback, 334 pp.

Few Canadian writers can write precise and evocative moments quite like Chelene Knight. The award-winning Vancouver-born author demonstrates this repeatedly in her debut novel, Junie, a coming-of-age tale about a Black girl growing up in Vancouver in the 1930s.

Set in the Hogan’s Alley area of Strathcona—which was razed in the late 1960s as part of an aborted freeway-construction project—Junie is a delight for lovers of the English language. Knight’s meticulous choice of words and flowing sentences serve as a lesson to those who want to be real writers—rather than hacks who churn out articles at the speed of fast-food cooks making hamburgers and fries.

This is a book that needs be read slowly to be truly savoured. It’s a full meal of literary talent, history, and storytelling set against a backdrop of a lost part of the city.

There are so many marvellous sentences in Junie—on virtually every page, in fact. Here are just two: “Junie looked at the hem of her colour-worn dress sticking out from her coat. Faded like it had been washed a thousand times and laid out in the sun over and over, all its colour sucked up and spat elsewhere.”

The story is important, chronicling a side of Vancouver that’s never received its due. Hogan’s Alley was a thriving, multicultural community with a significant Black presence. One of the directors of Hogan’s Alley Society, Stephanie Allen, documented this well in her 2019 SFU master’s thesis.

It took Knight, who lives in Harrison Hot Springs, to chronicle the experiences of its inhabitants in a fictional sense. She centres her story around Junie, her friend Estelle, and her mother Maddie, a brash, larger-than-life nightclub singer.

Along the way, Junie interacts with many others in the Strathcona neighbourhood, including shopkeepers and one special teacher. As Junie approaches adulthood, she discovers her talent for art and awakens to her sexuality.

Junie book jacket

Another award winner?

In 2018, Knight won the City of Vancouver Book Award for Dear Current Occupant, her memoir of growing up in East Vancouver as a precariously housed child and youth. In this new book, she delves into the relationship between a caustic mother and hyper-alert and often obedient daughter.

Here’s one of the many compelling passages on that topic: “Maddie kept her eyes on Junie, pleading for her to argue. But she didn’t; she got up and did as she was told. Junie made faces and scoffed when Maddie had her choice of men sitting at their small dinner table, but Maddie didn’t care. Junie was young, and not in her right mind if she didn’t understand a real woman’s needs.”

Reading Junie, it’s easy to think of another trailblazing Vancouver novel that shone a spotlight on a community ignored until then in the world of Canadian literature.

In 1995, Douglas and McIntyre published Wayson Choy’s The Jade Peony, which focused on three siblings growing up in Chinatown. Like Knight, Choy demonstrated a masterful command of the language in introducing readers to the lives of people living in the surrounding neighbourhood during tough economic times.

The Jade Peony captured the City of Vancouver Book Award in 1996. And no one should be surprised if Knight’s latest novel ends up as a finalist. If she wins for Junie, she will become only the writer after Michael Kluckner to accomplish this since this prize was launched in 1989.

Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter @charliesmithvcr. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.