Jack Layton: Art in Action, edited by Penn Kemp. Fourfront Editions, An Imprint of Quattro Books Inc., Toronto, 2013. 300 pages. Soft cover. $24.95.

reviewed by Louise Carson


The call came at 3:40 Sunday afternoon, August 21st, 2011.

“Louise, your father, he’s not breathing!” It was Lise, Dad’s companion.

“Did you call 911?”

“No, no. You do it.”

Christ. Call 911, explain, give my name and location, Dad’s and Lise’s location. Take five minutes instead of the usual ten to drive from my house in Saint-Lazare to Dad’s house in Hudson. First responders, the fire truck, the police: all already there working on Dad.

“Lise, I think he’s gone.” Call my daughter to call my sister to call my brother to call our uncle. Drive Lise home and help her inside. Terrible night.

The next morning drive down to the house to clean up before my brother and sister arrive. Oh yeah, and by the way, Jack Layton just died.

It wasn’t until I was two-thirds of the way through Jack Layton: Art in Action, reading the  eulogies and, curiously enough, descriptions of Stephen and Laureen Harper’s reactions at the funeral, that I found myself weeping for the man. Because of the timing of my father’s death, there hadn’t been time or emotional strength to process Jack Layton’s – until almost two years after the event. And, of course, reading about Layton’s family’s pain made me re-live that of my own.

Editor Penn Kemp, a London, Ontario based poet and part of Jack Layton’s extended family, is uniquely positioned to anchor the reminiscences, personal anecdotes, poems and songs celebrating Jack the artist. (Her sound poem ‘J’Acktivist’ appears in the book.)

In one of the book’s opening quotes Charlie Angus, NDP MP and Culture Critic says “Jack made politics his art and in doing so made our world a better place.” And Penn Kemp claims that Layton radicalized her and therefore her art, making her and it more inclusive. As she writes in one of her light-hearted commentaries “Art stirs the spring blood, inspired, respired, perspired. Art cares. Art rails, sings, dances, lilts, jigs, plays, laments, pleads, scolds, declaims, claims, debunks, funks. Art is fun. Art is the Heart of the Community. Spring forth! Write on! Act out!”

And that is the justification for the book.

Over and over in the one hundred and twenty-six chapters, Layton’s love of family, music, people and justice is related by a gamut ranging from those closest to him to some who never met him but were affected by his life and the way in which he left it.

Poets, song-writers and artists speak to the process of creation. There are links so readers can listen to songs on line. (Helpfully, these links and others re-appear in the acknowledgements section at the back of the book.) A few original artworks and photographs of Layton are spaced throughout the book, many of them commemorating a special event or just capturing a smiling Jack.

The interviews by Penn Kemp with Olivia Chow, Mike Layton and others make fascinating reading as does Nancy Layton’s blog of the 2011 campaign trail as she managed her brother’s physio, wardrobe and transportation as they criss-crossed the country, riding the orange wave to victory May 2.

At three hundred pages, the book is just long enough; I read it in a few days. But the short chapters make it an equally easy book to dip into briefly, from which to re-emerge refreshed by the knowledge that such a person as Jack Layton lived and is mourned, and that many people consider his life’s example to have been his most lasting legacy.