TORONTO - Claire Holden Rothman was just 12 years old in 1970 when Quebec — and indeed all of Canada — was rocked by the October Crisis, the kidnapping of British diplomat James Cross and the hostage-taking and murder of cabinet minister Pierre Laporte that led to the War Measures Act being enacted by then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau.
Forty-four years later, the Montreal writer revisits this seminal event in Canadian history with her novel "My October," which has been shortlisted for a Governor General's Literary Award for fiction, to be announced Tuesday. (The book and her first novel, 2009's "The Heart Specialist," were both long-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.)
While "My October" is set in 2001, its characters' lives are still being informed by the long-ago events that helped fuel Quebec's separatist movement, often pitting francophones against anglophones and nationalists against federalists.
Set against the background of the anniversary of the October Crisis, the novel focuses on a Montreal family in the midst of unravelling: francophone writer Luc Levesque, revered as the nationalist voice of his generation, is struggling with his latest book as well as his marriage to Hannah, an anglophone who translates her husband's works into English.
Their son Hugo, a typical teenager in most ways, is suspended from school after he brings an antique handgun to class in his backpack, setting off the family's own October crisis, which his parents deal with in divergent ways.
Luc moves out of the house, ostensibly to find a more inspiring place to write, but also to pursue a new muse in the form of his agent's beautiful young assistant, Marie-Soleil. Hannah, who has dedicated her life to Luc and his literary art while distancing herself from her parents, her culture and language, finds herself devoid of a support system and spirals into a deepening depression.
Hugo, who has grown up in his father's shadow, seeks to understand his full family history by connecting with his maternal grandparents, who live in Toronto, even adopting their last name, Stern, as his own.
"Oh, I'm totally all over in it — but not," says the 56-year-old author and translator, when asked whether the novel is at all autobiographical.
Rothman, who grew up in Westmount, remembers that the homes of some of her parents' friends were guarded by soldiers during the bombing campaign by the FLQ (Front de liberation du Quebec) that preceded the kidnappings.
From 1963 though 1970, the FLQ was responsible for more than 160 acts of violence, including the bombing of the Montreal Stock Exchange, in which seven people were killed. As part of its terrorism campaign, the group also targeted Westmount, placing bombs in about 10 residential mailboxes.
"Westmount was kind of the symbol of economic domination and power, and so there were bomb threats," says the author, recalling that she and other students at Westmount High were marched to a nearby armoury while bomb squads scoured their classrooms for explosives.
"I never felt afraid," says Rothman, who has two grown sons with her husband, actor-writer Arthur Holden.
"My overall feeling and wonder about that time was that we were so innocent as a society ... Now, with the world as it is and terrorism in the headlines all the time, we wouldn't be reacting like that. People would be hitting the roof."
It wasn't until Laporte's kidnapping that panic set in, and when his body was found in the trunk of a car a week later, a pall settled over Montreal, she says. "The city just went kind of silent and shocked, and by then it was crawling with soldiers."
But what really sparked Rothman's interest in writing about the period was seeing the 2003 documentary "L'Otage" ("The Hostage"), by Quebec film maker Carl Leblanc, in which an 80-year-old James Cross is interviewed at his Sussex, England, home about the horror of being held hostage for two months by the FLQ, and life after his release.
"It was really moving and I was so caught, because here was this man, and I hadn't heard about him in all those years since 1970," she says. "And I was thinking: 'Why have I never heard this guy's story?'"
"He was incarcerated for 59 days, at gunpoint. Sometimes strapped to dynamite. It was huge what happened to that man and it is part of our history. And I was just so struck. And my fiction antenna started to kind of buzz a little bit."
The former British trade commissioner to Canada's below-the-radar existence in the aftermath of the October Crisis was in stark contrast to that of Jacques Lanctot, one of five FLQ members who had abducted the diplomat and negotiated safe passage to Cuba in return for their captive's release. Lanctot returned to Canada in 1979, served two years in prison for the crime, and later became a publisher and writer.
Every October, Rothman says, Lanctot would be interviewed by the media about the 1970 events, but Cross seemed to have disappeared.
"And then, all of a sudden, here I was in this movie watching James Cross tell his story ... And I thought, 'Wow, we're still dancing around this issue in Quebec ... it's a very touchy issue still."
"It definitely still resonates and it's something that we're still uneasy about, very emotional about. And it made me think we need to bring this out into the open. We're ready for this talk now. We're ready in a way that we just haven't been."
Follow @SherylUbelacker on Twitter