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Slammin’ Tar

by Cecil Foster

Cecil Foster is a wise man with a flair for storytelling and writing that enters the heart. Slammin’ Tar, Foster’s sixth book, is a moving chronicle about the lives of working men. That it preserves the dignity of labour while exposing the sorrow of men is a testament to Foster’s deep respect for his characters.

The book is about a group of migrant labourers from Barbados; the title is taken from the workers’ slang for running away, for feet hitting the pavement. Ten months of each year the men live and work together on a tobacco farm north of Toronto enduring harsh conditions, uncertain pay, and a boss (a Canadian farmer who employs them, as his father and grandfather did before him) who is on the verge of bankruptcy. For the men, the temptation of escaping to the big city, albeit to live illegally, is great.

Back in Barbados, the migrant workers’ wives and children wait for letters, the enclosed remittances paying for a life the men enjoy for only two months of the year. And even then, the long absences have made their time at home less than comfortable; their children are strangers and their wives have taken other lovers.

The unnamed narrator of Slammin’ Tar is a storyteller taken from Bajan folklore, one of the millions of storytellers sent out of Africa to chronicle the lives of others. He travels invisibly with the labourers, in the luggage of Johnny, the eldest and most respected of the farm workers. Arrogant and uncertain of change, this narrator retains his faith in the characters whose lives he is to record. Yet he wonders, why has the mother of all storytellers sent him on this assignment. Of what wider import could the lives of these men be?

The catalyst for change is young Winston, a newcomer to the work crew who has ideas of his own and hands that are soft and uncalloused by manual labour. As the veteran migrant, Johnny is responsible for ensuring that Winston falls into line and accepts, as the others have, the difficult conditions of their lives.

In a dramatic ending, the storyteller is overtaken by events including death, conflict, and a sudden break for freedom. His idealism worn down by centuries of defeat and disappointment, he has failed to predict a sudden reversal of roles by his characters.

Slammin’ Tar is more than just the life story of migrant workers: it’s about the history that has formed the identity of African men, and the history of Canada – the dreams this country has built and broken.

As Foster writes in the book’s opening scene, “Breaking the familiar, this is what makes the story we are born to tell different from all others before, what makes it unique from all stories to come.” In Slammin’ Tar, Foster has broken the familiar and made something universal.