The Secret Mitzvah of Lucio Burke
by Steven Hayward
Published by Knopf Canada
381 pages, 2005
Fool For Love
Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen
Blending history with fiction is something Steven Hayward does exceptionally well. Any writer, however, knows it isn't an easy task. To begin with, you really have to really know that history. You have to measure exactly how much to use and where to use it and, lastly, you need exactly the right mix of both.
Hayward takes Canada in the 1930s against the looming menace of Hitler and WW II with its anti-Semitism and its growing threat of carnage. More specifically, he focuses on Toronto in 1933 and his hero, Lucio, is the pitcher at one of the most infamous baseball games in Canadian history.
Lucio is fiction, kind of. The riot at Christie Pits is not. The Secret Mitzvah of Lucio Burke may be the true story of how the author's grandmother met her husband. And it might not. Hayward makes it entertainingly clear in the preface that all this is murky. We can recognize the historical facts but the personal history is anyone's guess. That's part of the fun.
Against so much dismal history -- the depression, the treatment of immigrants, the emerging fascism, the communist paranoia and the fear of war -- the characters of Toronto's lowly suburbs live in the hope, passion and the security of their daily routines.
There is nothing routine, however, about Lucio's incredible pitch. He hits a huge black bird of out the sky in a miraculous toss at a batting contest. This causes the beautiful Ruthie-the-Commie to suddenly pursue him. Lucio's best friend, Dubie, is also in love with Ruthie, and declares his love after losing a finger while demonstrating his father's knives to an enthralled crowd and being distracted by Ruthie's passing smile.
Goyim like me will want to know what a Mitzvah is. It refers to one of the 613 commandments that Jews are required to obey, or more generally to any Jewish religious observation, or more generally still, any good deed. It's definitely the latter in this case as it has everything to do with Lucio pranging that black bird.
After Lucio does this and retrieves the glasses that the shortsighted prize pitcher of the Lizzies almost lost to the raptor, the pitcher, Bloomberg, disappears, never to be seen again. The bird disappears too, although it is rumored to have been seen at the end of the story. Is it a symbol for the blackness of the Nazi era and the approaching war or shall we just accept it as weird? After all, the inept Lucio's perfect pitch, hitting that bird on the wing and causing it to drop the glasses, is only one of the miracles in The Secret Mitzvah of Lucio Burke. Now add a statue of San Bonorio, a little known saint with a chicken, that suddenly begins to heal people, and combine this with the miracle of three babies being born on the same table on the same day, and you get the reason the priest from Saint Patrick's is sniffing around miracle checking.
Baseball figures largely in this tale, definitely inviting comparisons to Kinsella's Shoeless Joe. There is the same sense of magic and the same possibility of miracles. ("If you build it, they will come...") Hayward, though, shows the gathering dark as much as the brilliant sunset, and by placing his very real characters right where the colors clash, he creates an unforgettable tale made all the starker through its historical context. You'll laugh and shudder, smile and shiver. Despair and hope, denial and accountability, friendship and heartbreak, it's all the stuff of the human drama.
Not bad for a first novel. Born and raised in Toronto, Hayward's first book of short fiction, Buddha Stevens and Other Stories, won the Upper Canada Writers' Craft Award. The Secret Mitzvah of Lucio Burke is destined for larger glory. | May 2005
Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.