The Road Out of Hell by Anthony Flacco

If we are to understand “evil” at all, we must think of it as a word—an emotional word—we use to describe actions performed by other humans that we experience as breathtakingly horrible, shocking, and, often enough, nauseating.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 304 pages.
Read from June 18, 2020 to June 20, 2020.

I’m an avid follower of a book site called Book Riot. They publish frequent articles on anything book related. I stumbled across a headline that instantly made me want to read it, called “The Most Disturbing Book I Have Ever Read“. I love disturbing books so I wanted to see if it was a book that I hadn’t read it and sure enough it was. The Road Out of Hell was this particular contributor’s vote for most disturbing read. I had vaguely heard about the Wineville murders, probably on some true crime documentary that I watched. The author of this article sold me and I instantly went and put the book on hold at my library.

In the mid-1920s, Sanford Clark was 13 years old when his peculiar uncle, Gordon Stewart Northcott, convinced his deranged and abusive mother that it was a good idea for him to leave his home in Saskatchewan, Canada and go and work with him on a “chicken farm” in Los Angeles in the US. The minute Sanford left the home his mother practically forgot him and his uncle began to show his true colours and intentions. For the next two years Sanford suffered unimaginable sexual abuse and trauma at the hands of his uncle. It became clear to Sanford that the chicken farm was a ruse for his uncle to carry out despicable acts on young boys like himself and get away with it. Gordon Stewart Northcott kidnapped, raped and killed an estimated 20 boys, though he was only convicted for a handful. Sanford was mortifyingly forced to help with some of the acts by providing his uncle’s victims with meager food and water, locking them away from visitors or helping dispose of their bodies. Sanford realised he would only live as long as he proved useful and endured the screams he heard night after night and felt immense guilt and relief when the abuse wasn’t being centered at him. After so much abuse, trauma, and manipulation, Sanford eventaully resigned himself to his fate believing his he was trapped and could not be saved. He was was looking forward to when his uncle would finally kill him… Thankfully his sister Jesse never ever gave up on him.

Gordon Steward Northcott finally got caught for his crimes when he made the mistake of killing a young white boy named Walter Collins of whom he had an acquaintance with. Up until then, Gordon had been praying on migrant Mexican boys whom unfortunately the authorities would not have looked to deeply into when they went missing or were never reported to begin with. The movie The Changeling, starring Angelina Jolie is about the murder of Walter Collin’s as Angelina Jolie’s character plays Christina Collins, Walter’s mom, as she searches for her missing son. Gordon’s family knew about what he did and covered for him, with his mother actually assisting in one of his heinous murders. Gordon and his family attempted to escape but were eventually caught in September of 1928. Sanford bravely testified against Gordon in court and helped sentence Gordon to death by hanging in October 1930. The media attention and the gravity of these horrific crimes caused the town of Wineville to change its name to Mira Loma.

This story isn’t about Gordon though, this story is about Sanford and how he managed to beat all the odds of the trauma he experienced. After being rescued from the chicken farm after Gordon and his family fled, Sanford was lucky to have a people on the police force looking out for him. Sanford was put into a rehabilative youth program for his parts in assisting in some of Gordon’s crimes, despite him being a victim himself, but the program proved to be extremely useful in keeping Sanford busy and helping him heal from the ordeal. He made a promise to the investigator that he wouldn’t become a criminal statistic of those who have had to endure major trauma like he did. Sanford set out to lead a normal and productful life and he succeeded. Marrying the woman of his dreams and have the continued support from her and his sister Jesse through his darkest days, Jesse became a humble, hardworking, and kind person who raised two sons. He even served in WWII. Sanford passed away at the age of 78 in 1991 having fullfilled the promise to the policeman who showed him kindness and believed in him. The promise that kept him going during his darkest days.

This story is one of struggle and triumph. The novel puts the focus on Sanford and not on Gordon, as it should. The abhorring scenes that Sanford endured are tastefully described by the author in shocking detail that really makes you feel like you are in Sanford’s shoes. The author masterfully put Sanford’s life together from his teens to the end of his life. The content in this book is so chilling it’s hard to believe that it really happened as it’s a surreal read that is as engaging as a piece of horror fiction. I could not put this book down.

This novel is, by far, the best true crime novel I’ve read to date and I would highly recommend it to anyone who loves the genre. However, if you’re sensitive to scenes of rape and trauma, this book may not be for you. While the ultimate outcome of this book is positive, trauma is still takes a up a large part of this story.

 

 

Nine Lessons I Learned from My Father by Murray Howe

I will not rate this book. It is not a book a chose to read for myself and one that I didn’t get to finish as it should have.

Unrated.
Paperback, 240 pages.
Read from August 2019 to December 2019.

I will not rate this book. It is not a book a chose to read for myself and one that I didn’t get to finish as it should have. This book means far too much to me now to rate it. I bought this book almost a year to the day for my dad on Father’s Day 2019. It was a day that I couldn’t physically be present for since I live halfway across the globe from my family currently. It had also just been, at the time, just over a month since my dad was given 6 months to live.

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My dad with the book I sent him on Father’s Day 2019 eating his favourite cereal and wearing his old-timer team’s shirt. We would often get this cereal for him on father’s day as a treat because he would always share with us and it wasn’t something we were regularly allowed to eat.

My dad was diagnosed with stage four prostate cancer in August 2018. His cancer had spread to his bones despite him doing all the right things like getting regular doctor’s check-ups. Even with the late-stage diagnosis, we all thought my dad would breeze through treatment and we would have a good and solid two or three years with him, especially considering how young and healthy he was, it’s what all the doctor’s told us too. Unfortunately, after a variety of failed treatments that nearly killed him, twice, he opted to enjoy the remaining time that he had left. Sadly, that time was short, a mere 6 months.

Anyone that has lived with someone who has cancer or has had cancer knows the difficulties. It’s something that can’t be explained if you’ve never experienced it. The utter exhaustion, the despair of not being able to do more or relieve the loved one’s pain or take their cancer away, the frustration of unfairness, the denial of how bad things will be or are going to get to shelter yourself and the cancer sufferer, and for myself, the guilt of living so far away. I lost count how many times I flew home to support my family between August 2018 and November 2019. Some of those times were terrifying, having almost lost my dad then, while others were wonderful, albeit still difficult as my dad declined. I planned my wedding in two weeks so that my dad could be a part of it in the spring of 2019 and spent a month and a half over that same summer with my family.

It was during that summer I spent with my family that I started to read this book aloud to my dad. He rested while I read and sometimes my sister would come and sit and listen too. I had never read aloud to anyone, I can’t even remember what gave me the idea to do it. As I read this great story of Murray Howe recapping his childhood and talking about what a legendary man his father was, I couldn’t help but make associations with the qualities of Gordie and my dad.

My dad loved hockey and most team sports. He played football growing up, was even a quarterback despite his small stature. For most of his adult life he played baseball in the summer and hockey in the winter, he was also a runner. We ran our first marathon together. My dad was a leader who had a sense of justice and fairness that couldn’t be taught. He was passionate and caring about people so it was no surprise that he was a leader in nearly everything that he did. He was a manager of a credit union for nearly 40 years, he was the president of my swim team when I was a kid, he coached my sister and I baseball and soccer, and he would eventually come to run the old-timers hockey team that he played on for more than 20 years. Past his professionalism, he also had an endearing and absolutely goofy sense of humour that followed with a kindness that is hard to come by. My dad would help anyone.

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My dad and I at the Kelowna Marathon, October 2012.

Gordie Howe wasn’t only a good hockey player, he was a man of honour and he lived his life by his own code. Each chapter in this book is an example of a lesson that Gordie taught his son as he exemplified it in his own life. As I read the remarkable story of Gordie Howe’s life to my dad and the impact Gordie had on so many people, I couldn’t help but think of the lives that my dad also touched throughout his life and how my own dad lived honourably. Some passages were beautiful and really struck me, to the point where I had to swallow tears to continue reading. Sadly, I only made it to page 98 before my dad passed away, a page that will forever be bookmarked.

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My dad at The Heritage Classic in 2011.

My dad passed away at the age of 58 in November 2019. All the people he loved most in the world were present in the room when he passed. It was peaceful. It was beautiful. We were lucky. Murray Howe wrote an amazing tribute to his father. Murray may not have been the hockey player his dad or brothers were but he is a fabulous storyteller. This book came to be while Murray was writing his father’s eulogy and it was a source of inspiration for me when I also wrote my own father’s.

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My dad; happy, handsome, and healthy. As he should be remembered.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to but in December 2019, I decided to finish this book. Not only did it help remind me of happier times with my dad but it also helped to remind me of the lessons that my own dad taught me and process some of my own grief. It’s only been seven months and this is my first Father’s Day without him. I saved this review just for Father’s Day in hopes it would help bring me back to better times when he was still here and to make the day a bit more bearable for me.  

My dad was too young to pass. I am too young to be without my father. However, I am still thankful as many are not as blessed to have what I did or that I was able to be loved and love so deeply. No one deserves to die from cancer or to be taken before their time. I feel robbed in so many ways. For myself, for the children I may yet have, for my mom, my sister, and especially for my dad. Grief is ridiculously complicated, and in this instance, also prolonged. Grieving started from the moment of my dad’s diagnosis. Reading has often provided me answers and so it was one of the things that I turned to. While I received no answers this time, it was books like this one that has helped to ease the sorrow.

You don’t have to love hockey to appreciate and enjoy this book. Despite the circumstances that made start reading this book I’m glad that I did. The story is light, full of love, and really about the man that Gordie Howe was both on and off the ice. Even for those of us who know little of hockey, this book is still an enthralling read as it’s a story that is showcased in such a concise and loving manner while also breaching the topics of life, love, death, dying, old age, and grief. Gordie Howe was one hell of a character and it was a pleasure to read his story. Especially with someone who mattered so much to me.

From the Ashes by Jesse Thistle

If you’re looking for an uplifting and inspiring read to get your through the COVID-19 quarantine, this is it.

4/5 stars.
ebook, 451 pages.
Read from March 24, 2020 to March 31, 2020.

Well, finishing this book wraps up all five of the 2020 Canada Reads finalists for me. I’ll post my final thoughts on the five next week. From the Ashes will be defended by George Canyon when the debates resume after the COVID-19 virus settles. Now, let’s talk about the amazing story of Jesse Thistle…

“My words belonged to me, they were the only thing I had that were mine, and I didn’t trust anyone enough to share them.”

From the Ashes is the epitome of inspiration. Jesse Thistle overcame some of the worst things a person can endure; parental abandonment, drug addiction, homelessness, sexual assault, trauma, identity loss, and dealing with severe chronic physical pain (*spoiler* he almost loses his leg). Jesse Thistle is of Metis and Cree descent but he didn’t always know that. Jesse was raised by his grandparent’s after his mother mistakenly left him and his brothers in the care of his drug-addicted father. While Jesse was eventually able to reunite with his mother, he never did see his dad again. Jesse’s grandparents were firm but loving but it didn’t stop the trouble that Jesse eventually found himself in. After getting caught with drugs at 19, his grandfather accused him of being just like his dad and kicked him out of the family home and barred him from ever returning. Jesse left his home in Ontario and began his homeless life in Vancouver where he abandoned his best friend before ending up back in Ontario. Jesse was homeless for most of his young adult life. While most of us have fond memories of our 20s and early 30s, for Jesse it was a matter of survival, nearly giving up, and then making the choice to live again.

Jesse is now happily married to a woman he knew from his school days who helped him achieve his dream of getting a university degree after he got clean. His studies led him to explore his own family and heritage which then helped him pursue his career in academics. Jesse is now the Assistant Professor of Métis Studies at York University.

If you’re looking for an uplifting and inspiring read to get your through the COVID-19 quarantine, this is it. I mean, if a story like this, during a time like this doesn’t put life into perspective for you I don’t know what will. Imagine being a nobody. Having nobody, no home, no clean clothes, no money, no personal hygiene…  You can’t, there is no way to truly envision it unless you’ve lived it the way Jesse had. Jesse’s story is surreal, making it all the more shocking that too many Canadians, especially ones of Native or Metis descent, currently live the way he did, most of whom don’t escape the tragic lifestyle.

Mr. Thistle’s writing is highly engaging, succinct, perceptive, and humble. Feats that many accomplished authors are not able to do, which makes it even more amazing to acknowledge the fact that Mr. Thistle wasn’t always exceptional at reading or writing. It wasn’t until he started working on his GED while serving time in prison that he began to improve. Despite it being a worn-out saying, it doesn’t make it any less true to say that Mr. Thistle is the embodiment of being able to do anything you set your mind to.

Even in Jesse’s darkest moments, he held onto some form of code and personal honour in that he refused to deal drugs for the money he needed for his addictions and never took advantage of people he got close to. A rare quality even for those who are not addicts.

Mr. Thistle includes some of his own poetry snippets between the chapters and photos of himself, from childhood, mug shots, as well as family and wedding photos, adding to the heart-tugging emotional depth of this novel.

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Jesse Thistle – Photos – CBC Canada Reads

Out of all the Canada Reads books I read this year, I can safely say that I enjoyed this one the most. Is this the one book to bring Canada into focus? It touches on topics that have been making waves in Canada such as Native American rights, homelessness, drug addiction, sexual assault, and trauma. The fact that this story has a positive outcome also gives it an edge against the others in meeting the theme. We will have to wait and see what happens when the debates resume. The Canada Reads debates have been postponed until further notice due to the COVID-19 virus.

Stay safe and healthy, readers!