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Current Issue: #220 Tracking CanLit (Spring 2014)

Canadian Literature’s Issue 220 (Spring 2014) is now available. The issue features a wide range of articles and book reviews as well as a selection of new Canadian poetry.

Rites of Passage

  • Julie Johnston (Author)
    A Very Fine Line. Tundra Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • William Bell (Author)
    Crabbe. Fitzhenry & Whiteside (purchase at Amazon.ca)

Reviewed by Gisèle M. Baxter

The question of the "young adult" or adolescent novel is a problematic one. Does this material actually appeal to age peers of its characters, or to a younger audience curious about this next phase in life? The current popularity among teens of Lewis and Pullman and Rowling concerns novels that mostly deal with childhood, not adolescence (Rowling's juvenile characters seem increasingly younger than their actual ages), yet there remains a constituency for reasonably contemporary, reasonably realistic fare that takes on the angst of the teen years (hence the enduring popularity of The Outsiders, with its naïve but genuinely adolescent perspective).

Tolkien asserted in "On Fairy-Stories" that young readers don't necessarily like fairy tales, nor must they. The experience of adolescence takes so many different forms that the challenge of balancing appealing subject matter and relevant thematic concerns is tricky: there can be no generic "teen novel." That said, despite the current popularity of fantasy, and sexed-up teen chick lit (actually promoted in one book display as "Bridget Jones Jr."), and grimly explicit problem novels (i.e., anything by Melvin Burgess), the books considered here represent common trends in adolescent fare, and while both challenge conventions, both also reflect the persistence of the boys' book/girls' book dichotomy.

William Bell's Crabbe was first published in 1986 and has been reissued in trade paperback format. Despite its strengths (its spare, straightforward prose and convincing narrative voice, precisely observed sense of detail, especially in the wilderness setting, and well-paced plot), this is a familiar "angry young man" novel. The protagonist, Franklin Crabbe, throws away an apparently promising future on the eve of his exams and takes off for the wilderness; his daring is matched by his ineptitude, and he is rescued from almost certain death by a woman named Mary, young enough to stir desire yet old enough to maintain authority, who dwells capably by herself in the wilderness, on the run from her own demons yet tormented in turn by her isolation. The novel's popularity as a set text in high school is unsurprising; Crabbe's discoveries sometimes seem to set up topics for discussion: family dysfunction, formal and informal education, euthanasia. After Mary's death, Crabbe's return to the world he left is handled subtly enough: his family begins to acknowledge its dysfunction, and he begins to realize not all adults are monsters and he has much to learn before finding his path. Yet Mary's death and its melodramatic circumstances, however capably handled, cheat the novel of its chances to grapple with truly challenging issues: what if Mary had returned to the outside world with Crabbe? As it is, the implications of her mercy killing of her husband and Crabbe's attraction to her never really need to be pursued. A similar novel, Tim Wynne-Jones' superb The Maestro, also ends with the sort of "after school special" suggestion that all will be well with the guidance of caring adults, but its wilderness segment has the marvellous conceit of its protagonist discovering not a capable dispenser of survival lore but an eccentric genius clearly modelled on Glenn Gould. Crabbe lacks that sort of audacity, and yet it does question the boys' book convention of capable masculine heroism in its flawed complaining protagonist, who learns his most significant lessons from an unconventional woman.

Julie Johnston's 2006 novel A Very Fine Line is also set in Ontario, but if Crabbe echoes elements of the boys' adventure story, this novel echoes (and twists) elements of the girls' domestic tale. Set around the Second World War, the story introduces Rosalind Kemp on the cusp of puberty, her singular mother, her various sisters, and some mysterious maiden aunts who are not as practical and modern as Adele Kemp wants her children to be. Rosalind seems clairvoyant, a horrifying prospect during the traumatic physical evolution into womanhood (so traumatic she tries at one point to become a boy); I am reminded of Frankie's response to the priest in the movie Stigmata; told her condition is a gift from God, she asks if she can give it back. Rosalind's retrospective voice is precisely observant and witty. Indeed, Johnston's stated enthusiasm for L.M. Montgomery's Anne books is obvious in her vibrant sense of time and place, and the plausible eccentricity and vivacity of her characters (especially Adele Kemp, in her formidable foundation garment, grey best suit and fox fur, confronting the schoolmistress). It is also apparent in her evocation of a community of women, though at a time when harder questions about gender roles and expectations dared to be asked. The time-setting is one of the novel's strengths: despite its brevity, there is a sense of time passing that coincides with Rosalind's physical development and increasing sense of her powers, so that her options are defined dramatically through the choices and fates of her older sisters, and her encounters with the principal male characters, Corny and Adrian. Despite the melodramatic denouement of a novel that isn't really plot-driven, and an ending with more than a whiff of conventional didacticism, I never felt excluded by this book (elements recall Alice Munro's treatment of children and teens), while I did by Crabbe, which makes more specific assumptions about its readership. These divergent responses only further illustrate the difficulties in approaching, and the risks in defining the adolescent novel.

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MLA: Baxter, Gisèle M. Rites of Passage. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 22 Dec. 2014.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #194 (Autumn 2007), Visual/Textual Intersections. (pg. 101 - 103)

***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.

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