Since discovering his work, I always know to expect nothing less than the most potent emotional experience from Frank Flynn. Extremely intelligent and deeply intense, the Peterborough based playwright, director, and choreographer has made his reputation creating powerful narratives that celebrate the strength and the fragility of the human spirit. So, I was intrigued when I learnt that, in 2021, Frank was releasing his first ever novel, Song of the Sabbath. Once again Frank does what he does best by taking his audience on a deeply emotional and personal journey to another time and place, bringing to life deeply complex characters filled with a lifetime of stories and emotions.
In Songs of the Sabbath, Frank brings readers to 1938 Nazi-occupied Germany and the streets of 1940’s war time Toronto as he creates three narratives that weave together to create a powerful story. In 1938, Jewish restaurant owner Moishe Kaminer and his wife Ruth escape Germany after the events of the Kristallnacht and make the long and complicated journey to Canada, leaving everything behind in order to survive. Their lives collide in 1942 with twelve-year-old Mickey Ronan, an Irish Catholic boy going through growing pains, a crisis of faith, and the breakdown of his family after the death of his beloved father. In a third narrative, Frank chronicles the story of young David Kaminer, Moishe’s son, who is alone and lost in a city where all the Jewish people have disappeared and his own innocence places him in mortal peril as he tries to navigate the holocaust. Through the three narratives, Frank constructs vivid characters and intense emotional experiences exploring grief, faith, and survival, which redefine the boundaries of love and family.
Out of all the books I’ve been handed by authors I’ve known over the years, few have gripped or moved me more than Songs of the Sabbath. After reading the book and thinking through it for a while, I had the opportunity to go to Frank’s home to discuss the book.
“The idea of the book was inspired by real life events and real people,” Frank reveals. “I don’t think it really matters who the people were or what the circumstances were, but suffice to say, every writer who writes a novel has some basis of reality in which they are writing from. It sat with me for the better part of thirty-five years and percolated. Meanwhile I got pretty involved with theater and choreography and that was what I was doing. I published a bunch of my plays and have been quite lucky with my theater practice, so I was very involved with theater and drama. So to write a novel was outside of my experience. But I wanted to get the story out on paper and get it out in the world and see what happens.”
“The germ of the idea was there for a long time.,” Frank continues. “The writing process, the mapping out of the story, and the characters came quite quickly over eighteen months. The editing and rewriting process was painful. It was literally hundreds of microscopic details that had to tie together to make the story work. You’re lining up literally thousands of details to make the story make sense.”
For me, both as a reader and a writer, the most fascinating aspect of the book was how Frank manages to create a time and place that he had never personally experienced so vividly that he could make the reader believe that he had actually lived through the events himself. His recreation of the streets of Germany and, especially, 1940’s Toronto is believable. Knowing that Frank wasn’t born for decades after the era he is writing about, I was curious how he was able to recreate a world from another time.
“One of the things about capturing a place and time is the cultural shifts that take place,” Frank explains. “You can’t write about 1940’s Toronto the same way as you would write about 2020’s Toronto. It’s not the same place culturally. There is a different energy between people. It’s a big city now. People are suspicious of one another. People don’t say hi. People are not as friendly. That’s not true of just Toronto, but true of any big city. But I think in the 1940’s, there was probably a lot more of a community feel where people did engage with their neighbors. People did talk to one another. I think we need to keep in mind as well that there was a shared sense of the time of being into something together, which was the war.”
“So, when you’re in that situation when you are writing about a place or time in, a lot of it comes from your source material, and what you can learn from it in terms of imagery,” Frank continues. “I tried to engage the reader through other sensory experiences. Routine references to the scent and smells of food, of the streets. Of sounds, like the acoustic of what it means to be sitting in a place and hear the sounds of footsteps coming up the stairs to a place you’re hiding in. That’s a way to conjure within the reader’s mind and to directly connect the reader to a sensory experience so they go there with you. That’s ultimately what the writer is trying to do with a book is to suspend the reader’s disbelief and take them on a journey. Essentially, there is a contract between the writer and the reader. When I’m doing theater, the contract is between the writer and the audience. The contract is ‘I’ll tell you a story and you’ll go along with me and suspend your sense of disbelief and go into that story with me.’ As a writer it’s a similar contract, but the trick is to go into that experience with sensory experiences – sights, sounds and smells, textures.”
Part of the process of recreating the streets and feel of Toronto so vividly draws on Frank’s memories of growing up in the city, and of exploring the Annex, which was the neighborhood his father’s family originated from. “I grew up in Toronto and spent the first thirty-three years of my life there until I moved to Peterborough,” Frank tells. “I was a real Torontonian. I love Toronto. I know Toronto very well, and it wasn’t hard for me to conjure that place. Also, I like exploring the city while I’m there, and going to other neighborhoods. Toronto is a city of neighborhoods, and each neighborhood has its own feel.”
“The Annex has a very urban vibe to it and, having spent a bit of time there growing up, I know it really well,” he continues. “My Dad grew up on the Tranby Ave., which is referenced in the book. It’s an area I know really well. As a kid I was a house painter, and I painted a lot of houses in that neighborhood. But my grandmother lived in the house that is referenced in the book. I spent a fair bit of time in her house, and the house described in the book is the house my dad grew up in.”
“Toronto was a very different place in the 1940’s. It was still a very small town. The city didn’t extend much further than Bloor Street. Even as a kid when the subway opened at Lawrence and Yonge. That was probably 1972. I remember that quite well. I was probably six or seven years old. Before that, the north end of the city was considered to be Eglington. It wasn’t the sprawling metropolis it is now.”
Frank also explores a wilderness in Toronto, where Mickey escapes to during times of sadness, which has long disappeared. While it’s difficult to imagine this type of space in Toronto today, Frank incorporates it seamlessly into the urban landscape. “There is a lot of stuff in the book about the Don Valley and the Don Valley River and that ravine,” Frank points out. “There was a green space in which kids could disappear into and climb trees, make forts, make a lean-to. Fortunately, there is a lot of it that hasn’t changed since the 1940’s. There is now a lot of density around it. There is still a really beautiful green space. In terms of conjuring it for a book I had to imagine what this green space would be like seventy years ago. It was a lot less dense in terms of population, buildings, structures. I think the Don Valley is a big part of the book.”
One of the aspects of the narrative that I found the most compelling is that while the first-person narratives all belong to masculine characters, the connecting theme that the characters all share is strong feelings of grief and loss. It’s a very emotional read, filled with many tears. The raw emotion felt by the characters creates a portrait of three very vulnerable male characters. “There is an aspect of place and time where males played a more traditional role where there were different expectations of how men behaved compared to how men behave now,” Frank tells. “That’s a very tricky bit of business to get that right. I think there were definitely more distinct gender roles at that time. I don’t think that that extinguishes the possibility of a male archetype that is sensitive, thoughtful, capable of grief. “
Of course, religion and faith plays a dominant role in the narrative of the book. Moishe is running from religious persecution, while David is hiding from religious obliteration in a parallel timeline where Mickey is struggling with his faith prior to his confirmation and in the wake of his father’s death. Religious persecution and prejudices play an important part of the plot, but what is more important is the crossovers that Frank creates between Catholicism and Judaism. “Faith is a thing that binds communities together,” Frank observes. “It’s ironic for me to be saying this because I don’t consider myself a person of faith, but I have written this book which is essentially a book about faith.”
“What’s been most interesting is the assumptions people make about me as a result of the book,” he continues. “I had someone inquire if I had converted to Judaism. I haven’t and I don’t think they’d have me, but that’s a whole other thing. I had people ask if I’ve abandoned my faith. People ask if I continue to practice as a Catholic. None of this has happened. I’m a secular person. I don’t practice any particular faith. I have great reverence and respect for those who do, but the assumptions about me have been very interesting.”
“The one thing I will say about the book, where faith and religion are concerned, is that nominally it’s about faith, but more importantly it’s about something that is above those things, which is love. It’s the love between family, wherever you may find it. Difficult times often dictate reformation of relationships and what they mean. For Mickey it’s a time of grief. For the Kaminer’s it’s a time of loss and grieving. These are people that find one another, and they share that bond, they share that bond of loss. It works for all of them.”
But the most important theme within the book to me, and the one that I could relate to the most, is the concept that the reality of family extends beyond the one that you are born in. In this touching story, a boy who lost a father finds a man who looks out for him, and two people who were separated from their son during the most horrible circumstances possible begin to heal by loving a boy who needs them. Family ties and religious doctrine become irrelevant in the presence of the need for love and belonging. “The takeaway is that we’re all pretty much looking for the same things, and whatever persona we have in the world, whether its power or gender or race or our ethnicity, our geographic location, or religion, our faith – all of these things are secondary,” Frank says of his book. “The only thing that is important is dying knowing that we were loved.”
Songs of the Sabbath by Frank Flynn is an emotional book filled with believable and endearing characters, a story so real that it’s pulled out of our own collective reality and in a background that is familiar yet often untouched in literature. It is an incredible read crafted with passion, intelligence and heart. Enter Frank Flynn’s Toronto to understand why he is one of my favorite storytellers.
You can purchase Songs of the Sabbath now at Amazon.ca.
PHOTO GALLERY BY JESSICA SCOTT