Anne Degrace writes a library column for the Nelson Star.

COLUMN: Once Upon a Time in the Real World

My relatively untraveled self has travelled through time and across continents to gain insight and understanding through reading novels.

I owe a fair bit of my world knowledge to fiction. This is a very different sort of thing to the fictions being perpetrated, posted, tweeted and re-tweeted south of the border these days.

My relatively untraveled self has travelled through time and across continents to gain insight and understanding through reading novels.

In the absence of both time machine and teleporter, it’s not a bad way to learn.

I owe my understanding of East Indian culture and politics to books such as Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry and The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.

I learned about the Prague Spring through the novels of Joseph Skvorecky, and the Chilean coup thanks to Isabel Allende.

In my own back yard, books by Richard Wagamese, Lee Maracle, Eden Robison and Joseph Boyden offer a window into the First Nations experience, while Vi Plotnikoff’s Head Cook at Weddings and Funerals is a wonderful primer on Doukhobor life.

The Amnesty International Book Club knows that fiction is a good way to learn, and that a novel can raise great fodder for discussion. I am delighted to say that the Library and Amnesty International have partnered up to host the AI Book Club on the fourth Tuesday of every other month beginning Tuesday, January 23 at 7pm. All you need to do is read the book and drop in.

What book? The AI book club features popular Canadian novels that involve some aspect of human rights issues. Past books include Michael Crummey’s Sweetland, Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese, and The Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda. The January 2017 book is A Recipe for Bees by BC author Gail Anderson-Dargatz. The engaging narrative centres around feisty, funny Augusta Olsen as it raises questions about stereotypes around age and gender.

The discussion novel for March is Laughing All the Way to the Mosque by Zarqa Nawaz, a funny and eye-opening book about a young woman straddling two cultures. In May, we’ll read 419 by Will Ferguson, a novel that, for me, opened my own eyes to the vast complexities and human desperation behind the Nigerian advance-fee email scam. I am now a whole lot kinder to those people who call at dinnertime regarding my Microsoft computer.

Like all book clubs, we’ll have friendly discussion over tea and cookies, and—bonus!—we’ll have AI member Gary Ockenden facilitating our first meeting. My colleagues Heather Goldik and Melodie Rae Storey will join me in taking turns to host the meetings.

It’s all about finding the story behind the story, the better to understand, and even help to address human rights issues in the world we share.

Many AI books clubs join up with their local AI groups or participate on their own, writing letters and building awareness. Your level of involvement is what’s comfortable for you.

There are many ways to find insight through fiction. Overwhelmed by media images of the refugee crisis in Europe, Melodie Rae challenged herself to read novels about refugees. She wanted to remove the abstractness of those news stories. “I wanted to personalize it,” she says. “I think it’s important to bear witness.”

So far, her top three are two adult novels: What is the What by David Eggers, about a Lost Boy from Sudan; Little Bee by Chris Cleave, about a young Nigerian asylum-seeker; and one young adult novel, Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon, which follows the plight of Rohinga Muslim refugees in Australia.

Pain and beauty, despair and hope, history and humanity: whatever you like to read, there are whole worlds waiting in a novel near you.

Anne DeGrace is the Adult Services Co-ordinator at the Nelson Public Library. Check This Out runs every other week. For more information go to


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