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“God and whiskey have got me where I am. Too little of the one, too much of the other.”–David King, Chatham, Canada, 1895
Born a slave in 1847, but raised as a free man by the Reverend William King, David has rebelled against his emancipator and his predestined future in the church. He’s taken up residence in the nearby town of Chatham, made a living robbing graves, and now presides – in the company of a German ex-prostitute named Loretta – over an illegal after-hours tavern.
These days that final, violent confrontation with Reverend King seems like a lifetime ago. The residents of Chatham know David as a God-cursing, liquor-slinging, money-having man-about-town, famously educated and fabulously eccentric. And he seems to be more-or-less happy…that is, until the death of Reverend King brings his past crashing down upon him.
Inspired by the Elgin Settlement, which by 1852 housed 75 free black families and was studied by Lincoln and Harriet Beecher Stowe, Robertson’s novel is a fiery look at one man’s quest for knowledge and forgiveness, and a moving portrait of life after the Underground Railroad.
Praise for David
Canadian author Robertson fictionally re-creates the Elgin Settlement, a refuge for free black men and a terminus of the Underground Railroad in Ontario before the Civil War. Born a slave in 1845 but raised in the settlement, the eponymous protagonist was given an excellent classical education in the expectation that he would become a minister like his mentor, Reverend King. Unfortunately David reads too deeply in the classics, discovering in them the refutation of religion. Defying Reverend King, David indulges in alcohol and other sins, and is eventually evicted from the colony. As the novel follows David’s path to a successful life as a saloonkeeper in the nearby town of Chatham, he remembers life in the Settlement, the mistakes he made, and the people who made him what he has become. VERDICT: This beautifully written novel with its discontinuous narrative, complex characters, and references to poets, philosophers, and other great thinkers is a challenging read that is well worth the effort. Although Robertson (Home Movies; Heroes; Moody Food; Gently Down the Stream) has won many Canadian literary awards, his work is unfamiliar to American readers. With this novel he has beautifully brought to life a segment of African-American history that is largely unknown in this country.
– Andrea Kempf, Library Journal
This is an exceptionally well-written novel. Though there is nothing simple about David’s thoughts or story, the reader is drawn into David’s contemplation with the author’s forthright prose and the reader’s own curiosity about how David the child became the intelligent, jaded man so eloquently telling his own story. The characters are all engaging and interesting. This reader wouldn’t mind having whiskey with David herself. Highly, highly recommended!
Historical News Society
Robertson uses history as a springboard to a world of the imagination where heightened language creates larger-than-life characters who cast the human condition in startling light. He explores new territory with David and his success will solidify his growing reputation as a Canadian novelist with something significant to say about our country and its people.
David is a fascinating historical novel . . . Not only does this novel make an important contribution to our growing knowledge of local black history and life in late Victorian Canada, it is a powerful and timeless insight into the human condition.
– Northern Terminus: The African Canadian History Journal
Robertson has created a masterfully and meticulously written novel that not only brings up issues of race and the shame of our history, but also what we do and don’t owe to others for their roles in our lives.
In prose that is crisp and clean and a pure delight to read, David recounts his past, considers his hard-won independence, and admits his secrets. But this is no history lesson. Robertson has created a wonderful range of characters in this novel, some of them based in reality, all of them complex, immediate and fascinating. But best of all is David himself. Charming, smart, and audacious, he’s good company.
-Gil Adamson, author of Outlander
David is that rarest thing–a novel about the past that burns with the vibrancy of contemporary life–and its eponymous hero is one of the wisest, funniest, and most enchanting characters I’ve encountered in a long time.
-Todd Babiak, author of The Book of Stanley
David King is a protaganist who might do Mark Twain proud . . . Apart from its vivid sense of time and place, the strength of Robertson’s novel is the steely distinctiveness of this voice, as unwavering in its prickly pessimism as it is touching in its untethered yearning.
Ray Robertson’s story of an angry black man living in 19th-century Ontario is a mix of historical accuracy and vivid storytelling.
Globe and Mail
Novels about rock and roll bands usually fall in a great big heap when the writer tries to describe the music. I’m happy to be corrected on this one. Please drench me in the names of credible rock and roll novels. I can think of three. The Doubleman is one, Paul Quarrington’s Whale Music is another. The final and greatest of all is Ray Robertson’s 2002 novel, Moody Food. [He] uses his considerable storytelling abilities [in Lives of the Poets (with Guitars)]” to give his music a cohesive frame. This would be insupportable if the music wasn’t described with such clarity and detail. I could hear these albums as I read. That’s impressive.