Into the Wild, Again
- Bonnie Rozanski (Author)
Borderline. Porcupine's Quill (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Iain Lawrence (Author)
Gemini Summers. Delacorte Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Drew Hayden Taylor (Author)
The Night Wanderer: A Native Gothic Novel. Annick Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
An oft repeated trope of writing for adolescents is that male protagonists, however perceptive and creative they may be, cannot be good students (though an English teacher may recognize their potential, now and again). And when no one understands or appreciates the protagonist, he bonds with a dog or wild animal (or better yet, a bit of both: a tamed wolf), and heads off into the wilderness.
One really wants Bonnie Rozanski's Borderline to move beyond these tropes, as she confronts some serious social issues-obesity, autism, fast food-often overlooked in the glib world of fast-paced fiction for "young readers." But her approach is too heavy-handed. With no hint of sarcasm, a grade six teacher announces, "All the children who need to see the nurse for insulin, Ritalin, Flovent, Vanceril, please go now," and then moves on to a math lesson "sponsored by Hamburger Haven." Adults deliver lectures on the evils of fast food and the possible environmental causes of autism, the public school is chronically underfunded, and caged animals are abused as scientific test subjects. Although Rozanski's narrative picks up toward the end as the text veers away from presenting either a simple cause or treatment of autism, or providing a completely predictable conclusion, her message remains paramount, sidelining more subtle characterization or plot development.
Gemini Summer, by Iain Lawrence, exploits the same boy-and-dog-run-away-from-home trope, but instead of a larger-than-life urban setting, we are nostalgically drawn back to 1965, when life was simple, mothers baked cookies and fantasized about Rhett Butler, and fathers worked hard at honest, but dirty, blue-collar jobs. Danny River and his brother play happily in the local ravine, the older sibling dreaming of becoming an astronaut (hence the reference to the Gemini space program in the title) while our protagonist merely wants a pet dog. Tragedy strikes when Danny's brother is impaled after playing on the site of his father's partially constructed backyard bomb shelter-though why the father might be obsessed with the fear of a nuclear threat at this point in history is never really explained; similarly, the numbers tattooed on the arm of a neighbour, mentioned in passing by our curious protagonist, seem to beg for an explanation the text fails to provide (a lost "teaching moment," if there ever was one). And while Lawrence seems unconcerned about whether his youthful readers will catch those nuances, he takes for granted that they will recognize the repeated references to Gone With the Wind, the site of our protagonist's mother's daydreams.
But perhaps the most problematic aspect of Gemini Summer is the reincarnation theme. We are led to believe, through the earnest eyes of twelve-year-old Danny, that his brother has been reborn as a dog, yet the author draws back from this interpretation on the final page, closing with the folksy (almost Wordsworthian) declaration: "He came to believe that maybe there were things in the world that only children could understand, and that as long as he thought that a boy could die and live again as a dog, it would be a swell world after all."
By comparison, Drew Hayden Taylor's The Night Wanderer includes some refreshingly creative elements, fusing a vampire tale onto a coming-of-age story set on an isolated First Nations reserve. Yes, we have an unappreciated teenager who is "not a nerd," and who escapes into the wilderness and announces, "A Native Vampire! That is so cool!" But we also have a narrative with a strong sense of momentum, dominated by a female protagonist who does not remain passive or become a victim of the Europeanized vampire who has returned home to reclaim his roots. The town bullies are humorously punished, and the vampire delivers an impromptu history lesson in the middle of the night, yet Taylor avoids condescending to his adolescent readers.
A lingering question about all three of these books remains, however: just who is their ideal audience? None of these writers succeeds at consistently capturing the rhythms of adolescent speech, and too often we feel as if the authors are attempting to recreate their own childhoods or provide their readers with the plots and themes they feel adolescents and teenagers should appreciate. And nothing destroys a work of children's literature more quickly than the obtrusive presence of an adult consciousness.
- Romans de jeunesse by Anne M. Rusnak
Books reviewed: Je suis Thomas by Sylvie Desrosiers, Bonne année, Ani Croche by Bertrand Gauthier, and Une lettre pour Nakicha by Marthe Pelletier
- The Edges of the Forbidden by Cedric May
Books reviewed: The Devil's Paintbrush by André Brochu and Alison Newall, The Body's Place by Sheila Fischman and Elise Turcotte, and Wild Cat by Sheila Fischman and Jacques Poulin
- New Canadian Mysteries by Elizabeth Hodgson
Books reviewed: The Thief-Taker: Memoirs of a Bow Street Runner by T. F. Banks and John Pass, A Carra King by John Brady, Dead White Males by Ann Diamond, and Whistling Past the Graveyard by Peter Sellers
- German Critics on Canadian Women Writers by Rosmarin Heidenreich
Books reviewed: Selbst und Andere/s by Doris Eibl and Christina Strobel and Erscheinungsformen der Macht in den Romanen Margaret Atwoods by Hannelore Zimmermann
- Adventures in Ontario by Richard Scrimger
Books reviewed: Into the Ravine by Richard Scrimger, Death in Kingsport by Richard Scrimger, and When the Bough Breaks by Irene N. Watts
MLA: James, Suzanne, James, Suzanne, James, Suzanne, Lawrence, Iain, Rozanski, Bonnie, and Taylor, Drew Hayden. Into the Wild, Again. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 6 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #198 (Autumn 2008), Canada and Its Discontents. (pg. 172 - 173)
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