The Secret Mitzvah of Lucio Burke

Publisher: Vintage Canada
The Secret Mitzvah of Lucio Burke is a hilarious and memorable first novel about youth and passion, family and community, miracles and violence and baseball. This moving love story, also a richly imagined chapter of Toronto history, begins on a summer afternoon in 1933, when Lucio Burke knocks a great ungainly bird out of the Toronto sky with a single perfect throw of a baseball. Thus it is that Lucio, a careful seventeen-year-old whose father died the night he was born, is drawn out of himself and into a complicated world.

“Lucio Burke, there’s more to you than you think.”

That same night, beautiful Ruthie Nodelman, “Ruthie the Commie,” asks Lucio out on a date. Ruthie is gorgeous, committed and convinced that both love and the Revolution are just around the corner. She and Lucio have been neighbours on Beverley Street for as long as they can remember: the Burkes live between the Nodelmans and the Diamonds in three adjoining houses. Lucio was born on the same day as Dubie Diamond (and Lucio’s cousin Dante), indeed, on the same kitchen table. But this summer everything between them changes.

Desperate to do something to change the world, Ruthie is organizing a walkout of garment workers on Spadina Avenue, a wildcat strike into which Lucio finds himself enlisted. All around the city is in fervour, with new immigrants – whether Jewish, Italian or Chinese – dreaming of and working their way to a brand new life, and coming into sometimes violent collision with the city’s older, established British and Protestant cliques. Along with labour unrest, there’s also a new kind of anti-Semitism on the rise, inspired by the example of the new Führer in Nazi Germany, as well as Italy’s Il Duce.

Ruthie and Lucio’s romance blossoms, with Ruthie very much taking the reins; and as they fall more deeply for each other we discover the complex web of family and chance that brought them together: from Abe Nodelman’s past as a union organizer, to Lucio’s father’s courtship of Francesca; from Lucio’s grandmother’s long journey from Italy to Toronto, accompanied by a statue of her village’s patron saint, to the invention of the knock-knock joke in New Jersey. The book’s vivid description of family life, with all its profound love and equally profound eccentricity, is gently humorous but also very moving; it is a portrait of community amidst diversity, another way of living in a city bubbling with ethnic and political tension.

“If not for Dubie Diamond cutting off his index finger a week later, the two very well might have lived happily ever after.”

Pitching Greenstein’s Remarkable Knives at his father’s stand at the St. Lawrence Market, Dubie Diamond catches sight of Ruthie smiling at him, cuts off his finger, and tells Ruthie he loves her. After the accident–which he says, afterwards, may have been no accident – the newly aggressive Dubie takes Lucio as his competitor in a Darwinian struggle for Ruthie. The tension between Ruthie and Lucio rises when, later, Lucio finds Dubie trying to set fire to the kitchen table on which they were both born. Covering up for Dubie, Lucio stands Ruthie up; inadvertently, he also triggers a series of events that will become known as the Beverley Street Miracle.

Lucio fights the new distance that has opened between himself and Ruthie while being tracked by an assiduous Irish priest who is investigating the “miracle.” Then, with the city rocked by fighting between Jews and the Swastika Club, he finds himself on the mound as pitcher in what will become most infamous baseball game in Canadian history: the riot at Christie Pits. Events there bring this alternately funny and moving, magical and deeply realistic novel to an explosive climax, brilliantly wrapping up its portrait of the hopeful and passionate lives of the ordinary men and women of a world gone by.

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PROLOGUE

This is a true story. My grandmother told it to me, and for her I suppose it was a kind of love story — a tale about how she met my grandfather one August afternoon after a baseball game. This was in 1933, and the baseball game was in Toronto. At the end of the game, seconds after the final...
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READING GUIDE

1. What is the secret mitzvah referred to in the title of the book?

2. What parts of The Secret Mitzvah of Lucio Burke made you laugh? Where does the humour in the book come from?

3. What is the significance of Lucio Burke’s name? “Lucio” means light, or almost means...

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PRAISE FOR

“An absolute pleasure. . . . Hayward’s Ward has all the charm and colour of Richler’s St. Urbain Street. . . . [The Secret Mitzvah of Lucio Burke] is as powerful a rendering of the early 20th century immigrant experience in Toronto as is Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion.”
Toronto Star

“Powerful….Hayward often achieves the insight and wit of Ring Lardner’s baseball stories, as well as the whimsical magic of W. P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe. . . . The charm of this novel is in its easy-going humour and well-crafted sentences. . . . Hayward’s characters are always engaging, and he does a splendid job of revealing their quirks and amusing contradictions. . . . A novel with note-perfect dialogue, evocative descriptions and laugh-out-loud funny bits.”
The Globe and Mail

“A comic, picaresque tale filled with colourful adventures. . . . The ease with which Hayward combines baseball, social history, comedy, family sagas and a love story suggests that he may crack CanLit’s starting lineup in the years ahead.”
Winnipeg Free Press

"The Secret Mitzvah of Lucio Burke is a wonderful novel, funny and touching, and full of more sheer invention than most novelists stretch over a career. It is a great achievement."
—Paul Quarrington, author of Galveston

"The Secret Mitzvah of Lucio Burke is full of colorful, larger-than-life characters and richly rendered action. Steven Hayward has created a mythic Toronto that will live vividly in the reader’s imagination."
—Dan Chaon, author of You Remind Me of Me

“In a debut novel, Depression-era Toronto comes alive as a magical and slightly unreal landscape. . . . More light than stark. . . . [The Secret Mitzvah of Lucio Burke] is lively and fun.”
TIME

“A great story, filled with ample humour and affecting tragedy. . . . Hayward captures the prewar era and the angst of passing into adulthood with great assurance in this gem of a novel.”
Edmonton Journal

“If Hayward is a new face his soul feels old. . . . {He is] an engaging writer, with an offbeat sense of humour and a knack for making us care about his seriously flawed but mainly big-hearted characters. There are traces of Bernard Malamud’s baseball fable, The Natural in The Secret Mitzvah of Lucio Burke, and some John Irving, too. . . . In the world according to Hayward, you expect the unexpected.”
—Joel Yanofsky, National Post

Praise for Steven Hayward:

"The genius of Toronto writer Steven Hayward. . .is to take the daily slipshod passage of trivial- to- traumatic events, present it as pure storytelling and distil from it the essence of what it means to live, through times both terrible and transcendent. . . . Hayward takes things we hope aren’t possible, things we hope won’t happen, and shows that their happening is precisely what it’s all about — and we’re as blessed as we are cursed by it. . . . It’s been years since I’ve seen this much fresh talent and wisdom."
The Globe and Mail

"Hayward sneaks in the back door, pulls out your heart and hands it back on a plate for examination."
Canadian Literary Review

"Hayward is already an accomplished storyteller, whose work is filled with enough bright bits of truth and compassionate humour to make whatever he tries his hand at next well worth looking out for."
Toronto Star

“Blending history with fiction is something Steven Hayward does exceptionally well. . . . [Hayward] creates an unforgettable tale made all the starker through its historical context. You'll laugh and shudder, smile and shiver. Despair and hope, denial and accountability, friendship and heartbreak, it’s all the stuff of the human drama.”
January Magazine


From the Hardcover edition.