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Thursday, March 29, 2012

My reactions to "Journey for Justice"

My program at school often forces me to step outside my comfort zone, and that's one of the reasons I like it so much. Whether I'm interviewing random people on the street, attending sporting events, or staying up until 3 a.m. finishing an assignment, it's all helped me to grow as a person and a potential player in Winnipeg's media scene.

Recently, however, my class was assigned to read a non-fiction book about a notorious crime that happened in Winnipeg almost 30 years ago, that was only recently solved. The book was Journey for Justice: How 'Project Angel' Cracked the Candace Derksen Case, by Winnipeg Free Press justice reporter Mike McIntyre.

Photo from

One of the reasons I avoid non-fiction books is I know how it's going to end. I remember seeing Titanic when I was 10 years old, and when the boat hit the iceberg I was all, It's okay, someone will come rescue them! and then I was all, No they won't, you fool. This is a true story.

I had the same reaction during the first few pages of Journey for Justice. It's the story of Candace Derksen, a 13-year-old Winnipeg girl who didn't come home from school one day. Her body was found, bound and frozen in a storage shed a couple months later. The book describes her family's search for Candace and how they dealt with her death. McIntyre balances the family's struggle with in-depth descriptions of the court proceedings that convicted Candace's killer, Mark Grant, and discussion of the forensic evidence that led to his arrest.

Reading about when Candace didn't come home from school that November afternoon in 1984, I kept telling myself everything would be fine. It would all work out. As Candace's mother Wilma was gripped with fear, I was too. When Wilma told herself everything would be okay, Candace would walk through the door any minute now, I believed her.

And then I remembered, no. This wasn't a made-up story, or a movie, or anything with a happy ending. This was a real-life, true story, that ended tragically.

It's a testament to McIntyre's skills as a writer that I didn't just ditch the book right then and there. While I already knew how the book would end, I wanted to read more. I wanted to know what happened to Candace, what happened to her parents Wilma and Cliff, and how their strong, supportive community rallied around them when they needed them so much.

I tend to avoid non-fiction because it lacks the narrative structure of novels. I like something with a beginning, middle, and end, and a whole whack of rising action and denouement and all that stuff packed in the middle somewhere. Journey for Justice kept me interested largely because it followed this structure - well, the first half of it anyway. While the second half was important, it didn't maintain my interest as much as the first part - mostly because it consisted of court proceedings and psychiatric assessments of Candace's convicted killer. All important stuff, no question, but it felt as though McIntyre abondoned his authorly habits and put his reporter hat back on. Nothing wrong with that, but 100+ pages of journalistic writing can get a tad dry.

I haven't read any of McIntyre's books but I follow him on Twitter and read his articles in the Free Press on a pretty regular basis. I think he's a great reporter - he sticks to the facts without being melodramatic. He writes about some gritty, horrifying stuff, yet he maintains a level of humanity that makes his work easy to read. In Journey for Justice, it sometimes felt like he was trying too hard to be an author - he often gave into melodrama, when a story like Candace's doesn't need it.

McIntyre and Wilma Derksen spoke to my class last week about Journey for Justice and Candace's case. McIntyre offered invaluable advice to a roomful of budding journalists, and what stuck with me those most was the notion of trust. Mike wanted to write Candace's story, but instead of playing the part of the stereotypical story-hungry reporter, he built a relationship with the Derksens. He showed them an incredible amount of respect and compassion, and treated them like human beings. To him, they were more than just a great story.

They were people, and he wanted to do them justice.

Now, the theme of my blog is music. I hate to stray from my theme, but I also hate to trivialize this story with a lame video of some song I like. Journey for Justice repeatedly mentions Candace's favourite song, "Friends are Friends Forever" by Michael W. Smith. Here it is, for Candace.