George and Rufus (Rue) are born one year apart into grinding poverty of a Nova Scotia community, to a violently abusive father and a frightened well-intentioned mother. They have mixed heritage, part Black, part Mi’kmaq. Battered and hungry, they struggle with learning and abandon school after several attempts at grade three. 

George is stolid, strives to be good, serves briefly (and badly) in the military, and is happiest doing heavy physical work for farms, gardens, and woodlots. But he can never hold a job for long. He marries Blondola and they start a family in Fredericton, New Brunswick. 

Rue is more dashing, calculating, and slippery. He has a self-taught talent for piano and cultivates an odd form of jazz. He falls in love twice and loses both times--first to an accidental death and next to his own imprisonment. Arrested for theft, he serves two years in prison and, upon his release, barges into George’s marginal existence, contributing nothing and menacing the precarious but loving home. 

When Blondola goes into hospital for the birth of her daughter, the doctor refuses to let her leave until his bill is paid. George needs money desperately. Rue convinces him to use a hammer to stun a white man – any white man—and take his money. Together they settle on targeting a taxi driver, but the man who responds to the call is George’s friend. He cannot go through with it, but Rue clobbers the driver, cajoles George into robbing the dying man and dealing with the evidence.

The brutal murder and shockingly clumsy aftermath of their barely disguised deeds results in their arrest. During the police interrogation, George tries to explain his innocence and blames his brother. They are tried within the racially intolerant British-inherited court system that wrongly flatters itself to have avoided American excesses of racism. They are executed on the gallows, hanging side-by-side. 


A remarkable but painful story, loosely based on the true story of the author’s maternal cousins once removed.  The narrative unfolds as if in the frank voice of a neighbour or a witness with insight into the brothers’ thoughts and sparing no details. At times it is difficult to read.  

Their parents had begun young married life with love and aspirations—the mother dreaming of taking the glamorous city of Montreal in a red dress. But poverty and humiliation sour their feelings for each other. The father reacts only with violence against his wife and sons. The harsh upbringing, endless struggles, and appalling education of George and Rue serve to explain if not forgive their crimes. 

The murder of George’s taxi-driver friend takes place in the middle of the book. Rue takes off to buy new clothes. George drives aimlessly in the stolen, bloodied car with a corpse in the trunk. Their actions loudly proclaim their guilt and a dire, baffling lack of reason. The looming inevitability of their capture and execution dominates the final chapters. 

George Elliott Clarke is a renowned, award-winning poet and his ear for the music of language captures perfectly the rhythm and idiom of Black English. Although he insists that the work is a novel, his meticulous research through archives, newspapers, and secondary literature, explained in the notes, lends authenticity to the excruciating tale.


Alternate source: New York: Carroll and Graf, 2006.



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