Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

A Sharp Intake of Breath

Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

A Sharp Intake of Breath

Article excerpt

John Miller, A Sharp Intake of Breath (Toronto: Simon and Pierre Fiction, Dundurn Group, 2007), 250pp. Cased. $21.99. ISBN 1-5500-2607-0.

A sharp intake of breath, according to Herman 'Toshy' Wolfman, is the moment when you pause and acknowledge that you must act, no matter the consequences. Throughout this winding tale by John Miller, the reader slowly discovers that it is not what one does that truly matters, but why.

Toshy was born to a left-wing Jewish family in Toronto in 1916. His greatest afflictions are his cleft palate and split lip, which affect his speech, appearance and, most important, self-esteem. Through a first-person narrative, Toshy takes the reader back and forth between his childhood, late adolescence and young adulthood (including eleven years of incarceration), to his present-day life, at age seventy-seven. It is a slow, wandering journey and a touching tale.

Toshy is surrounded in his life and memories by his sisters Bessie and Lil. Bessie's grandson, Ari, is Toshy's companion in the segments of the story set in the present. Due in part to a narrative in the first person, only Toshy's character is fully developed. Letters from Lil to Toshy and the anarchist Emma Goldman help lend dimension to this sister, but Lil remains, as do all the characters with the exception of Toshy, two-dimensional.

Within Toshy's tale is another narrative: that of the life, career and opinions of Emma Goldman. Her story is intertwined with Toshy's. Toshy hears Goldman speak as a child; Lil is a devout follower and friend; Goldman is the subject of Ari's dissertation. Goldman's story serves a couple of purposes, including that of illustrating one of Toshy's lessons: people and situations do not present themselves in black and white and truth is in the nuance. …

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