In the Land of Long Fingernails
(published by Viking Canada)
View Charles Wilkins's video
What the judges said:
"This comical work of literary non-fiction takes us back to Toronto in 1969. Though tinged with hippie cultural themes and preoccupations, it is mainly a portrait of the gravedigger as a young man. Tales of the irreverent and comical crew that administers each body beyond last rites provide a welcome contrast to Charles Wilkins' daily encounters with the blunt realities of death. His droll punch-lines roll like a lawnmower through the grass and over the hills of the land of long fingernails. Surprisingly, it is a place that all of us should visit . . . and undoubtedly will."
During the hazy summer of 1969, Charles Wilkins, then a student at the University of Toronto, took a job as a gravedigger. The bizarre-but-true events of that time, including a midsummer gravediggers' strike, the unearthing of an unsolved murder victim, and illegal bone-shifting, play out amongst a parade of mavericks and misfits in this hilarious memoir of the gradual coming-of-age of an impressionable young man.
(photo by Eden Robbins)
Charles Wilkins is the author of a dozen books, including Walk to New York, A Wilderness Called Home and The Circus at the Edge of the Earth, all of which were listed in The Globe and Mail's Top 100 Books. He divides his time between Thunder Bay and the Muskoka region of Ontario.
Excerpt from In the Land of Long Fingernails
During the third week of July, two or three days into a mumser of a heat wave, rumblings begin to surface about a city-wide gravediggers' strike. Not that it hasn't been expected. The union local has been without a contract for six months, and, strategically, the time and temperature are right. The thought of unburied corpses piling up in ninety-degree heat is about as attractive to cemetery management as it is to the city at large.
"It's no time to croak," chirps Peter, who, based on a newspaper article he has read, informs us that when the strike happens the psychological trauma will be such that the death rate itself will drop, as it apparently did during the last strike a half-dozen years ago. The next day, he pins up a Globe and Mail story entitled "Knowing When to Die," which describes the conclusions of a trio of Berkeley psychologists who have discovered that the dying not only have the "capacity to cling to life for indefinite periods of time," but that they will exercise that capacity for reasons as simple as their desire to "celebrate a landmark birthday," or "spend Christmas with family," or "be present at the impending visit of a loved one." Or, under present circumstances, to avoid having their carcasses trapped, restless and rankled, above ground during the unionized shutdown of their local cemetery.
On the day news of the strike hits the newspapers, a raffish old man accosts Luccio and me in the Garden of the Last Supper, telling us that if he'd known we were unionized, he'd have "bought a plot someplace where they've never heard of gawdam unions!"
Luccio contemplates this for a second, turns to face the old man, and says in a modulated voice, "Notwithstanding that I am not a union employee, sir, I submit to you in all due respect that in places where they've never heard of gawdam unions-and I speak here of advanced strongholds of human tolerance such as gawdam China and gawdam Soviet Russia-they do not need cemeteries because they dispose of their dead by grinding them into sausage and spitting out the gawdam toenails!..."
Luccio pauses briefly, then delivers to the old man the glad tidings of his good fortune: that it isn't too late for him "to buy another plot" in any cemetery he might "gawdam choose to go to."
"And it isn't too late for me to report you to the management!" sputters the old man in his papery voice.
"Actually," responds Luccio, glancing at his watch, "it probably is too late, inasmuch as all complaints about the non-union help must be submitted to the management before the management passes out from alcohol mortification at approximately 3 P.M."
Read the Committee's comments on the other shortlisted books.