Book Review: Cycling to Asylum
Reading Tuesday, Sept. 23 at Handlebar, with discussion to follow about what a cycling Utopia in Toronto would look like
by Derek Chadbourne
Except for the life and times of Major Taylor, books on cycling can be fairly dull affairs. There are exceptions to the rule, mostly in the travel category, but many of them are as dull as watching track racing.
Cycling to Asylum author, Su Sokol has done the near impossible, writing a compelling book about cycling, that has almost nothing to do with cycling.
The futuristic story follows a family of four, Laek, a teacher with a mysterious past, Janie, an activist lawyer, and their two children, Siri and Simon, in their pursuit of a Utopian city north of the border.
The United States has become a fascist state where demonstrations and alternative lifestyles are watched closely by a government no longer interested in giving liberty to its citizens. Early in the book, while on his way to work, Laek, the father is assaulted by a police officer.
One would think this fact alone would make you run from a city, but it is during a public demonstration against the government that everything starts to unwind for this family of the future.
Laek interferes in a police arrest of two of his students. For his effort he is brutally beaten and hospitalized.
While recuperating in the hospital, Laek thinks he sees the officer who attacked him on the television -- or screen, as they call it in the future -- at the same demonstration where he had been beaten. A fear begins to gnaw at him that this police officer is hunting him and will uncover his past life.
He is convinced that his life and the lives of his family are at risk and the only way to be safe is leave the country for the mythical independent city of Montreal.
In the future, Canada remains a close ally of the United States and the only safe place in all of North America is the City of Saints.
They rid themselves of their worldly possessions, bundle their kids on to bicycles and sneak out of New York City.
With the title of the book, Cycle to Asylum, one would expect an epic journey to the border, constantly hounded by the violent police officer, not unlike Escape to Witch Mountain, but this escape from New York only takes two pages before they are safely riding through the idyllic Quebec country side.
Then, the family's true struggles begin once they arrive in Montreal. Finding themselves in a new country, trying to learn a new language and culture, each individual family member must figure out how to cope with their new surroundings.
Laek's shady past is finally revealed during their hearing for refugee status, causing strife among the family.
The family's lot in life slowly improves and even daughter Siri, who feels she has been torn from her teenage love in New York, comes to realizes that life in a French speaking city is not as bad as a fascist America. The contrast between sewer-scented New York City and Montreal's city of chocolate is equally a contrast between a society that lives by fear versus one that lives by hope. Each chapter is narrated by a different family member. This mixes up the narrative so that you are never bored with the story of the transplanted Americans. All of this makes for an entertaining narrative that culminates in the reader discovering Laek's questionable past and a family member being kidnapped back to America.
The story is somewhat biographical of author Su Sokol's own move from New York City to Montreal. Her description of facist America brings to mind the Bush era of terrorist alerts and over the top police powers, and this is, in fact, when her family immigrated to Canada.
"People ask us if we left because of Bush and the Republicans but we left as much because of the Democrats who did not provide any kind of a real opposition to these policies. For example, some the worst acts against welfare recipients were done during the Clinton years."
What makes Cycling to Asylum a great cycling book is that it’s not all about cycling, but about how cycling contributes to a much larger dream of a just society that accepts the tired and poor, the huddled masses who yearn to breathe free. It's about what makes a Utopia where no one goes hungry and the bike police wear pink cycling tights.
Here is a link to the Facebook event page. The event starts at 8 p.m. at Handlebar in Kensington market.
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