Growing up in Saskatoon in 1970 with a black father and a white mother is a challenge for Easy (short for Louisiana), but it’s not all bad: her father has trained her as an auto mechanic and Easy has a great blues voice – or so she hopes.
Raised on Cajun cooking and recordings of Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, Easy dreams of making it as a singer. Then she hears that Janis Joplin is coming through town on the Festival Express. When the train stops at the liquor store, Easy is there waiting, hoping against hope to meet the singer. Joplin’s invitation for Easy to sing at a club in Texas launches the girl on a fateful journey to places where the colour of her skin puts her at risk. When she arrives, Easy realizes she is only welcome because of Joplin, and refuses to sing. Her journey home, the astonishing truths she learns along the way, and Joplin’s death mark Easy’s difficult coming of age.
Easy is a believable mix of perceptiveness and naivety, with an engaging and sardonic voice. The secondary characters are also richly drawn. These include the compassionate Mother Superior, who orders a young nun named Marsha to be Easy’s unlikely travelling companion; Marsha herself, a judgmental girl who evolves into a warmer person after her encounter with Joplin; Larry, who holds the key to Easy’s future as a blues singer in Saskatoon; and Easy’s taciturn father Clarence, who has secrets of his own.
Weaving fiction and history together can be tricky, but aside from a few moments during which Easy seems a little too self-aware for her age, Stellings succeeds in providing a vivid glimpse of a little-known slice of Canadian history that will make young readers think more deeply about race and social justice.