Introduction for J.B. MacKinnon
The highlight of the presentation ceremony is the introduction of the authors by distinguished individuals.
This is an age in which relativism and an uncritical Pavlovian acceptance of received ideas have combined in such a way as to become a corrosive influence in public debates. The great questions of our age cry out for the kind of examination that relies upon the universal virtue of reason; the liberating methodologies of rational thought. These questions cry out for the kind of storytelling that is undertaken with an insistence upon the discernment of fact from fiction, faith from belief, and the real world from the world as it appears in propaganda and in wishful thinking.
In such an age, more than ever, facts matter. History matters. The truth matters: the truth as revealed by facts, as discovered by curiosity, by wonder, and by a consideration of the multiplicity of perspectives from which facts are seen. The real world matters. Honesty matters. And storytelling matters, because that is the way, as human beings, we have evolved to comprehend the universe around us. It is the way that great and grisly thing known as the truth is revealed to us.
It's for these reasons that the vocation in which Jimmy MacKinnon works is so relevant today, and why this genre ≠ literary non-fiction, creative non-fiction, belles lettres ≠ is increasingly prominent in literature today. It is a genre that requires of its practitioners a deep and abiding devotion to the stuff of the real world, of real people, in all their flesh and blood and stupidity and magnificence and beauty.
The place where the real world intersects with myth is a haunted crossroads, fraught with great peril. It is the place where great poetry occurs, where wars begin and end, and where madness and material things collide in dizzying and disorienting alignments of narrative. It's not a place for the lazy or the faint of heart. It's a dangerous place, and Jimmy MacKinnon strides through that place bravely in this book of his, Dead Man in Paradise.
Among the many dead from the rebellions, coups, and countercoups that wracked the Dominican Republic during the 1960s, there was a Canadian priest, Arthur MacKinnon, the seventh of nine sons of a Cape Breton coal miner. He is remembered among many Dominicans as Padre Arturo, the martyr.
Despite the several conflicting accounts of the priest's death, they all agree that on the night of June 22, 1965, Padre Arturo was killed in a barrage of gunfire on the outskirts of the village of Monte Plata. It was a dark time in the country's history. Only a few weeks before, the United States government declared the Dominican Republic to be on the brink of a communist takeover, and thousands of American soldiers had invaded.
Had he lived, Padre Arturo would have been a paternal uncle to Jimmy MacKinnon. Instead, the dead priest became a mythic figure in MacKinnon's boyhood imagination, the rebel hero of MacKinnon family lore: a blood sacrifice, a martyr to the cause of the poor and oppressed.
Padre Arturo's legend lingers in a similar way in parts of the Dominican Republic. He's a little bit of Che Guevara, and a little bit of Oscar Romero, the assassinated "people's bishop" of El Salvador.
MacKinnon was never quite satisfied with the myth. He wanted the truth about his uncle, and he wanted to reconstruct it from the old-fashioned stuff of facts. So he set out to attempt that, and the result is Dead Man in Paradise. It's a bit like a John le Carr» spy thriller and a bit like a Raymond Chandler detective novel, but it's also a stirring memoir, and a testament to the enduring virtues of literary journalism, besides.
The story winds through old graveyards and kitchen-table conversations with his uncle's surviving comrades, and it snakes through the homes of decrepit generals and the offices of coup-era politicians. Everybody holds a small piece of the puzzle, and the narrative trajectory of Dead Man in Paradise is the same story that slowly revealed itself to MacKinnon, with all its twists and turns, revelations and blind alleys, disappointments and surprises.
Still, even after MacKinnon makes flesh and blood of him, Padre Arturo loses nothing of his heroism. But it's not the grand heroism of a mythic figure. It's the quiet heroism of ordinary people in times of war and revolution. Arturo was no zeal-consumed Che Guevara. He was no Oscar Romero orator. He certainly wasn't a Mother Teresa, content to comfort the dying. He was a old-fashioned working-class Catholic from Cape Breton who saw a grievous offence against God in the violence and suffering being visited upon the Dominican poor.
And for these reasons, Dead Main in Paradise is an eminent candidate for this fine prize, the British Columbia award for Canadian non-fiction.
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