Teen in 'little factory town' deals with big questions in Ray Robertson's 1979

Robertson's entertaining new novel centres on 13-year-old Tom, who is considered by many in his hometown of Chatham, Ont., to be a miracle.

Author Ray Robertson set his novel, 1979, in a town and a time he knows well: Chatham of 1979.


Author Ray Robertson set his novel, 1979, in a town and a time he knows well: Chatham of 1979.

There was a time, not long ago, when newspapers were delivered door-to-door by enterprising neighbourhood kids riding bikes through the streets with heavy canvas bags slung over their shoulders.

Today though, most young paper carriers have vanished into nostalgia alongside video-store clerks and milk-truck drivers.

Growing up in hardscrabble Chatham, Ont., a former auto city close to the Detroit border, author Ray Robertson was never a paperboy like the protagonist in his entertaining new novel, 1979, published by Biblioasis in nearby Windsor. Tom is 13, and although he doesn’t have a conventional family — Mom is a former stripper turned born-again Christian; Dad, the local tattoo artist — his interests in music, TV, sports and junk food are typical.

“Thirteen is such big change,” says Robertson. “You go from being a kid to almost a teenager, but you’re not really into the opposite sex yet. You start to be aware of others beside yourself, and see your parents more as people.”

What sets Tom apart is that he is considered by many in Chatham to be a miracle.

Shortly after his mom abandoned the family, Tom chases his Super Ball down a manhole into a sewer filled with enough hydrogen sulfide gas to kill a person. His supposed resurrection becomes an urban myth, leading some to believe Tom is wise beyond his years. Meanwhile, the poor kid is just trying to figure out his own place in this small-town world.

Robertson purposely avoided writing a traditional coming-of-age tale, or giving Tom clichéd preternatural powers.

“I didn’t want him to be so precocious; a 13-year-old boy wandering around wondering about eternity,” says Robertson. Instead, he uses Tom as a means to tell the stories of other Chatham residents — like the successful lawyer diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and the Polish concentration camp survivor — through 25 vignettes set off with faux newspaper headlines.

“I always wanted to use Chatham as a microcosm of the bigger Canadian societal picture,” he says. “A little factory town in southwestern Ontario on the border with Detroit isn’t really part of the CanLit experience. Not that I wrote it to address that, but I am really pleased those voices are there because I think that kind of life is underrepresented.”

Also not one to romanticize the past, Robertson, now 51, set the book in 1979 recalling memories of how his own family’s life dramatically changed after the auto factory where his father worked shut down.

He was also influenced by the wider political happenings of the era, like the rise of right-wing leaders such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Yet, the outside world only casts a slight shadow in his novel, except for when it comes to its authentic pop-culture references, from Mr. Freezie frozen treats to the TV show M*A*S*H.

“It was nice to go back to when you had to get up to change the channel on the television,” Robertson says.

“That’s what is neat about literature. It was a different time, yet here’s this kid talking the same things as we do now, and have for thousands of years: Why am I here? What is happiness?”

Sue Carter is the editor at Quill & Quire magazine.

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