Quest for Family
- André Alexis (Author)
Ingrid and the Wolf. Tundra Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Polly Horvath (Author)
The Vacation. Groundwood (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Sarika P. Bose
André Alexis and Polly Horvath both write coming-of-age stories suitable for children over ten years. In these open-ended narratives, the protagonists undertake challenging journeys during which they face unexpected, often bizarre encounters with relatives.
Alexis’s novel, Ingrid and the Wolf, is a quest narrative with an intriguing premise, and includes fairy tale elements. The ordinary young protagonist who discovers that she is of noble birth and that she has unusual powers, is a standard character in children’s fairy tale and fantasy. The awakening of those powers in a setting that evokes the past is also a common device, and the contrast between the mundane setting of the child’s usual world with the fantasy world has been used by many authors, from C.S. Lewis to Susan Cooper, to suggest the existence of a world that is more heroic and that allows the child to reach his or her full potential.
The frame of modern life in Toronto greatly contrasts with the pseudo-medieval culture of the remote Hungarian community to which Ingrid travels. Ingrid and her parents’ immigrant experience appears to be the focus at first, but attention soon shifts to the mysterious and magical world of their past. Her parents’ initial resistance to Ingrid’s journey to their homeland of Hungary has, perhaps, an unexpected source; it is not political unease, but a deeper unease connected with heredity and the supernatural. Ingrid does travel to Hungary at the command of her imperious grandmother, where, as her parents had predicted, she is made to undergo symbolic tests that affirm her nobility and her identity as a member of the family. Her tests follow the triadic patterns common to fairy tale and myth. When she discovers the family secret of the supernatural wolf, Gabor, Ingrid’s ability to speak to him suggests unusual powers and great potential. Unlike generations of the noble Balazs family, she honours her promises to him, and rescues him from the labyrinth in which he has resided for centuries. Though her action disrupts the family traditions, her courage and sense of honour are presented as admirable.
However, once Ingrid’s double quest to find her roots and to prove her abilities is successfully completed, the novel seems to lose direction. She returns to Toronto with the supernatural wolf, whose power, unpredictability, and wild wisdom are confined within a young urban girl’s mundane routine of school and homework. Her journey has given Ingrid new experiences and some new confidence, yet, the purpose of bringing the wolf back seems unclear. There are no significant battles to be won in Toronto, and her new-found ability to converse with wolves does not help her reach any particular potential. In fact, Gabor loses his immortality when he leaves the Balazs home, and is
reduced to an unusual pet who causes Ingrid some embarrassment and inconvenience, and who occasionally intimidates unpleasant schoolmates for no real purpose.
Polly Horvath’s novel, The Vacation, follows the rambling journey undertaken by the young, anxiety-prone narrator, Henry, who longs for a stable home and parents. Henry’s parents go on a trip to Africa, leaving him with his eccentric aunts, Mag and Pigg, who force him to accompany them on a directionless road trip through America, when he would rather play baseball with his friends over the summer. Henry has some adventures, which range from being lost in a swamp to meeting strangely cold relatives who live in a house with turrets; these teach him useful lessons about self-sufficiency and family relationships. However, his anxieties are exacerbated by his parents’ behaviour in Africa, as his mother vanishes and his parents’ marriage seems to be breaking up. Even when his parents return, their reconciliation is fragile, and their attitude toward Henry seems as curiously casual as his aunts’ attitudes toward him. Henry’s place within his family appears precarious. The self-centred unpleasantness of many of the adult characters underscores the atmosphere of uncertainty and powerlessness in Henry’s life. With an endless, dull journey taken with bickering adults as his one certainty, Henry, by the end of the novel, can only adopt an attitude of resigned acceptance and try to become more adaptable to his situation.
Both these journey narratives employ some imaginative episodes, but these are eventually made secondary to dull routine, and their lasting significance for the protagonists is left to the imagination of the reader.
- The School of Life by Gisèle M. Baxter
Books reviewed: The Shepherd's Granddaughter by Anne Laurel Carter, The Saver by Edeet Ravel, and Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki
- Engendering China by Lily Cho
Books reviewed: Chinese Femininities, Chinese Masculinities by Susan Brownell and Jeffrey Wasserstrom and Tales of a Chinese Grandmother by Frances Carpenter
- Gothic for Beginners by Hilary Turner
Books reviewed: The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe and Ryan Price and When I Was a Boy Neruda Called Me Policarpo by Poli Délano, Sean Higgins, and Manuel Monroy
- Useful Keys by Adrienne Kertzer
Books reviewed: Hamlet for Kids by Lois Burdett, The Great Poochini by Gary Clement, Understanding Children's Literature: Key Essays from the International Companion Encyclopedia of Children's Literature by Peter Hunt, Wild Cameron Women by Maureen Hull and Judith Christine Mills, Wolf and Seven Little Kids: Based on a Tale from the Brothers Grimm by Anne Blades, and The Tempest for Kids by Lois Burdett
- Family Secrets by Gisèle M. Baxter
Books reviewed: Every Time We Say Goodbye by Jamie Zeppa and Miracleville by Monique Polak
MLA: Bose, Sarika P. Quest for Family. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #191 (Winter 2006). (pg. 157 - 158)
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