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A hermit’s tale 

Jon Tattrie's new book on Africville can help Halifax come to recognize itself honestly.

There are a lot of reasons to read Jon Tattrie's new book about Eddie Carvery, The Hermit of Africville (jontattrie.ca/africville/index.html). First, it's a damn good read. Tattrie, a former Daily News reporter, writes with an engaging novelistic approach, through one- to five-page chapters that give life and colour to what in a lesser writer's hands would be a bland historic account.

Another reason to read the book is that its subject, Eddie Carvery, has a profound story. "He's like something out of the Old Testament," Tattrie tells me. "He's both deeply cursed and deeply blessed."

Carvery was born in Africville, the black settlement on the Bedford Basin that once stretched up the hill to Duffus Street, but was forced to retreat time and again: as an infectious disease hospital, a prison and a slaughterhouse took entire chunks of the town, as railroad tracks split it in two, as the Halifax dump was itself dumped on Africville and, finally, as in the name of "urban renewal" and supposedly to make room for MacKay Bridge, the houses of Africville were bulldozed.

Even as the bulldozers ravished his family home, Carvery began an on-again, off-again 40-year protest, camping out at his old home site. He's there now. "You can think Eddie's crazy," says Tattrie. "But spend just two minutes talking with him and you'll see he's a deeply political man."

Tattrie tells Carvery's story honestly, and relates his multiple addictions: alcohol, speed, crack and the often-horrific violence he unleashed on the women in his life. "It's not about Eddie the saint," says Tattrie.

The book is a parallel tale of two healings. We follow as Africville shrinks from its expansive past, to a tight-knit but fearful community, to the wrecking ball and finally to the point when all that is left of Africville is the person of Eddie Carvery, in a one-man camp on land the authorities refuse to recognize. Likewise, Carvery shrinks from the expansive and inquisitive child into drugs and violence until he too is reduced to a man facing only himself.

And then, the healing: One by one, Carvery deals with his demons, and as he does, the former residents of Africville begin to make headway in their search for justice. Earlier this year, mayor Peter Kelly issued a formal apology to the people of Africville, and signed an agreement with the Africville Genealogy Society that gives the name Africville back to the area and rebuilds the town's Seaview Church.

Last Saturday, at the Africville reunion, Tattrie introduced Carvery to the assembled. "I spent a few minutes building him up," explains Tattrie, "and Eddie stood up, and the first thing he did was spend five minutes apologizing to all the people he has hurt."

Carvery's tale isn't one of redemption, but rather of simply honesty. "Eddie didn't quit crack because he wanted to," says Tattrie. "He quit crack because he saw he needed to." Likewise, Africville isn't rising Phoenix-like out of the ashes; some of the former residents think the agreement with the city doesn't go far enough---they'd like a public inquiry, for instance---but there's a sense that at least their grievances are recognized as legitimate, which itself brings them some peace.

Which leads us to the third reason why Haligonians should read Tattrie's book---the healing tale that has yet to be written.

"White people still don't know the truth," says Tattrie. The destruction of Africville "wasn't about urban renewal, and it wasn't about building the bridge. Read the book and that becomes obvious. It was about racism, a racism that doesn't acknowledge its own existence. There was a deep level of contempt and violence [perpetuated] against Africville."

Nova Scotians have built a fantasy history of escaped American slaves fleeing to the land of non-discrimination, says Tattrie, and think Nova Scotia is to this day uninfected by racism. The Africville story gives the lie to that story, and Tattrie tells it brutally and beautifully.

Tattrie would like the larger community to hold a "private inquiry." If we can come to deal with our own violence we can become, like Carvery himself, not redeemed, but whole.

"Radical honesty has set Eddie free," says Tattrie. "And radical honesty can set the rest of us free."

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