The Silent Workers by Jillian McArthur

by capreviewroom

          Michael Ondaatje’s novel In the skin of a Lion is a beautifully written love story that is entwined with the lives of immigrant workers in Toronto in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Ondaatje uses real events, infrastructure and characters along with made up events and characters to make his story come to life. His thorough research of Toronto’s history and the immigration camps at this time make the reader believe that this could have been a real story. Ondaatje was an immigrant himself, born in Sri Lanka, and made his way to Canada in 1962. Although he never experienced life as an immigrant in the 20’s and 30’s, he seems to have a connection with the immigrants during this time and wants to make their stories known. Ondaatje does an excellent job at this giving light to the workers who helped build some of Toronto’s first major infrastructure, and not just on the buildings themselves.

          The characters in The Skin of a Lion are all very real and significant to the story, no matter how small their part. Ondaatje uses real characters such as the millionaire Ambrose Smalls who goes missing, and creates other characters such as Smalls mistress, a Macedonian immigrant bridge worker Nicholas Temelcoff, a nun who drastically changes her life, and a thief Caravaggio who steals the lives of the rich. Many of these characters disappear and then reappear later in the story, which gives the reader a sense that they are living their lives beyond narrative. They are living their own untold tale while someone else’s tale is being told. Sometimes characters even disappear so long you forget they were ever there. The story mainly revolves around the character Patrick Lewis, a small town farm boy who learns that life is full of surprises. Growing up watching Finnish logging camps arrive in his town every winter, he soon finds himself working side by side with similar immigrant camps, gaining an insight that many Canadians during this time did not have. Patrick starts off as a searcher, “he searched out things, he collected things”(157), but soon his life is led by love rather than searching.

         Ondaatje’s tells this story not in the in normal chronological sequence of events, but rather takes away time to tell the events in order of importance. It jumps from memory to memory, much like one would recall events from their past. Ondaatje uses a very unique and interesting way to tell the story of Patrick Lewis, while giving the reader a sense of what life was like as an immigrant bridge builder, a tunnel builder or a leather tanner. The images that Ondaatje has created in my mind will stay with me forever, and have given me a new appreciation to some of the infrastructure built in Canadian history.

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