A Prince George writer telling a Prince George story has been listed as one of the best books of 2018 for the adolescent audience.
The annual NPR (National Public Radio) Book Consierge publishes a list of 300 top titles that were released in the past year. Kim Purcell's novel This Is Not A Love Letter was on that exclusive list of 2018's Great Reads.
"It was out of the blue for me, so very exciting," said Purcell, who grew up in Prince George and now lives in the Los Angeles area. "Being on the list of their top books brings it to national audiences everywhere. Having that reach for NPR will be huge for it."
A lot of other "best of" book lists take the suggestions of the NPR list, so Purcell is now bracing for more positive feedback.
The story is fiction. It tells the tale of a popular young black man who goes suddenly and mysteriously missing while out for a jog.
The circumstances of the disappearance and the search for him both serve to uncover streaks of prejudice and bias in the young man's community, and cause his girlfriend to realize for the first time what schisms and weaknesses existed unseen under her white blanket.
"A fast-paced and heartbreaking story about racial tension, depression and loss in a small town in the Pacific Northwest," said NPR's book critic Amal El-Mohtar. "Jessie is writing letters to her boyfriend Chris, with whom she recently broke up - just before he vanished. Chris is one of very few black people in a mostly white town, and Jessie grows increasingly afraid that he's been murdered. The first-person narration is relentless and raw, as Jessie confesses things to the absence of Chris that she never was able to say to him in person."
The story drew strongly from Purcell's own experiences when one of her closest friends in high school, Al Rivas, really did go missing on a jog along the Prince George riverside trails in 1989.
"It is really neat to see it in Canadian bookstores, and I've done quite a few school visits in British Columbia. There's something super special about that," said Purcell, describing how her secretly Canadian story was spread first across the U.S. by her American publisher, then repatriated in a subliminal way back to Canada when a distribution deal got it into the marketplace in this country.
"What I experienced, and a lot of our friends experienced when Al went missing, was total shock," she said. "The next step was to explore what could have possibly happened? This incredible person who really did make a giant positive difference in a lot of people's lives - it was unimaginable. He was a straight-A student, amazing athlete, super kind, personable. How on earth could he possibly be missing? We had to look at was it possible that a hate crime may have been committed?"
Then his loved ones had to ask if the search effort was as fulsome as had the victim been blonde-haired and blue-eyed.
The first motivational rule of any writer is "write what you know" so this was a natural subject for Purcell to work with anyway, but she was extra compelled to shine this light because of the common traits across North America when the central protagonist is a visible minority.
"We need to be uplifting voices of colour, writers of colour should be published much more widely than they currently are, in Canada the voices of Aboriginal writers must be heard more, and as a white woman writer I felt it was important to talk about white bias and white privilege and how our experience of whiteness is so impactful from the time of birth onward," she said.
Her own "best of" recommendation was for people to read the book White Like Me by author Tim Wise and, as she did, let it squeeze open the windows of consciousness about your own natural and inevitable biases.
"This particular book opened my eyes to how much racism hurts everybody," Purcell said. "We all know that racism hurts people of colour and homophobia hurts people who are homosexuals, but that hatred and that judgment spreads to everybody."
This Is Not A Love Letter will soon be released on paperback, and new books by Purcell are in the works, again with subject matter scratched from the scenes of her Prince George.