Taking “Consolation” in history

There’s a story behind the story of wherever we live, whether it peeks out from a weathered keystone, lurks in the architecture behind the modern signage on an old building, or ghosts through someone’s comment about a house or business that “used to be here.” And according to Michael Redhill, we might just be less lonely as a society, and even treat each other differently, if we discovered and paid attention to that story.

This past Monday, as part of the “Keep Toronto Reading – One Book” initiative, the Reference Library launched the month-long program with an evening featuring the “One Book” itself — Michael Redhill’s Consolation. The choice of book might seem obvious for a Toronto program, since it features dual storylines set in the city in 1997 and 1857, but the underlying idea that propels both stories is universal and equally important to any city or other community.

It’s too easy, Redhill said during his discussion with journalist Tina Srebotnjak, to be interested only in the “here and now,” while letting the past go without even a look or any documentation. Yet he believes that the way we treat our physical city “leaks into” how we treat other members of our community. The physical city has a lot to do with “the polis,” which the Greeks conceived of as the community itself, exercising citizenship responsibilities within that physical place.

So the modern-day storyline in the book deals with the race between finding and documenting the remains of an old shipwreck at the former shoreline in downtown Toronto, and the threatened destruction of the archaeological site by the construction of a major sports centre on top of it. Running in parallel, the 1857 story depicts the loneliness of three characters who forge a relationship in the old city (part of the “consolation” of the title), and eventually document its early growth with the emerging photographic technology of the time. The result of their work is a 13-part panorama given to the city, which is then sent to Queen Victoria by municipal officials who hope to persuade her to choose Toronto as the capital of pre-confederation Canada. It is the original plates for this panorama, possibly carried as cargo in the lost ship, that the archaeologists seek in the modern story.

The prints of this panorama do in fact exist, one copy in Toronto and another in London, England, although the plates are gone and no one actually knows whose work it was. But it was this photographic series which inspired the novel Consolation and, Redhill said, “put flesh on” the instinct that there was an ongoing Toronto story, carried through past and present.

Monday’s event was more than “just” Tina Srebotnjak’s interview with Michael Redhill. Ross Manson, founder and director of Volcano, an independent theatre company, presented two dramatic readings from the book, one from each time period. And singer Mary Lou Fallis, accompanied by pianist Peter Tiefenbach, provided a musical setting with several early Canadian songs.

In fact, a couple of those musical numbers perfectly illustrated the points Redhill was trying to make. “Oh, What a Difference Since the Hydro Came” chronicles a lover’s complaint that amorous trysts in the darkness of an evening have disappeared, since “the hydro” now makes night as bright as day. Even in 1913, when the song was written, the customs of the past had been cast aside by the progress of the present.

Another early song, “We Dye to Live,” was originally sent around on sheet music by the Parker & Company Dye Works, to the firm’s customers and other citizens in 1890. It served both as a marketing tool, and a song the whole family could sing around the piano.

And the Parker & Company Dye Works, so far as can be ascertained, was originally situated on the site of the Toronto Reference Library. There’s the past and present, connecting once again in a single evening.

Do I want to read this book? Actually, I cheated: I read it last year when it first came out in hardcover. But because I love discovering the history of a place and feel that it helps a person experience the present life of that place in a richer way — yes. That was exactly why I wanted to read the book. And this evening with Michael Redhill would have induced me to read it if I hadn’t done so already.

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