The Trials of Youth
- Don Trembath (Author)
A Fly Named Alfred. Orca Book Publishers (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Kerry Rauch (Author)
Alphabet Soup: A Novel for Young Adults. Borealis Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Margaret Taylor (Author)
Three Against Time. Orca Book Publishers (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Gernot R. Wieland
These three books have very little in common beyond being set in Canada and being written for and about young adults. Kerry Rauch follows the move of a young Nova
Scotia girl named Starla from Sydney to Vancouver, and her struggles to come to terms with her new environment. The title of the book refers to Starla’s uncanny ability to (almost always) read the future in the letters of alphabet soup. Margaret Taylor takes her three young heroes away from their summer holiday and transports them back in time to the Barkerville fire in 1868. The frame of the story sees a young girl fall into an old mine shaft in chapter one, and being rescued from it in chapter 21 by the three boys who know of the mine shaft’s existence because of their time travel. Finally, Don Trembath creates the figure of a young sleuth, Harper, who has to find out the identity of "Alfred," the writer of satirical pieces in the school newspaper. One of these essays has greatly offended a young buffoon who offers a reward to the person who can identify "Alfred." Upon threat of being turned into a "welding rod," Harper gets commissioned to find "Alfred," a task greatly complicated by the fact that Harper is, well, "Alfred."
All three books are set in Canada, although one would hardly guess it about A Fly Named Alfred and Alphabet Soup. A Fly Named Alfred could take place in any North American school. It does not really matter that "Emville, a town about thirty-five kilometers north of [Edmonton]" is not described, that no local features figure prominently, that we are left ignorant of tree-lined streets and/or flat prairie landscape: the characters are so well drawn, the story moves at such suspenseful speed that any lingering over landscapes or cityscapes would probably be considered disruptive. Alphabet Soup, however, has no such excuse. It seems inconceivable that the uprooted Nova Scotian would not react to Vancouver’s sea- and mountainscape. Whether she is gradually won over by its natural beauty, or resents its lure, it cannot be ignored. And where in Vancouver does Starla end up? Is it in trendy Kitsilano, in working class East Vancouver, or in snobby Kerrisdale? All three could be used to good effect to emphasize Starla’s feelings of initial alienation and gradual acceptance, but Kerry Rauch ignores the potential of setting. In the end it would not matter much whether Starla moved to Toronto, Winnipeg, or Saskatoon.
Three Against Time, in contrast, gives an excellent sense of setting. The streams, where the boys fish and pan for gold, the ruined cottage, Barkerville, the bush, even the differences between the 1868 and 1995 landscapes—all are skilfully and concisely sketched. As befits a Canadian novel, the three young heroes also encounter a bear, and thus even the fauna contributes to a solid Canadian setting. While Taylor is successful in creating a physical setting, her device of a double temporal setting is not quite as well handled. When the first of the three brothers disappears in time, the two remaining brothers are worried, but when they are all back in 1868, it does not seem to cause them much anxiety. The 1868 adult, at whose cottage they stay, shows no interest in trying to find out how he could send them back to their proper time but is quite concerned about getting them into proper period clothes. No doubt suspension of disbelief is implicit in time travel, but that should not allow the writer to suspend psychological verisimilitude.
Stylistically, A Fly Named Alfred is the easiest book to read. The book is incredibly fast-paced; the dialogues are snappy; a dry sense of humour pervades everything. If Harper doesn’t find "Alfred," he’ll be turned into a "welding rod," and if he does identify him, he’ll also be turned into a "welding rod." He decides to fight the irony of life with irony of expression. Of the three books, this one is definitely the best.
The strength of Three Against Time’s lies in the Barkerville episode. The frame of the young girl falling into the abandoned mine shaft does not contribute much to the actual story; we have almost forgotten her by the time our heroes return from their time travel. If Taylor’s primary purpose was to make history immediate for young readers, she could have achieved that goal better by omitting the frame.
Alphabet Soup is the weakest of the three novels. While its primary purpose of chronicling Starla’s gradual acceptance of and by her new environment is laudable, it buries the main story by heaping on top of it an incipient romance, several heartbreaks, clairvoyance, prejudice against young people, racial prejudice, and the contents of an Ethnic Diversity class. At times, the novel sounds preachy, which is not exactly the right tone to reach young adults.
- Viewing African Canada by George Elliott Clarke
Books reviewed: The Blacks in Canada : A History by Robin W. Winks
- History Made Interesting by Lynn (J.R.) Wytenbroek
Books reviewed: Beginnings: Stories of Canada's Past by Ann Walsh, The Name of the Child by Don Kilby and Marilynn Reynolds, Winds through Time: An Anthology of Canadian Historical Young Adult Fiction by Ann Walsh, and Sacred Sarah by Mary Alice Downie and Muriel Wood
- Narrating BC by Joel Martineau
Books reviewed: West by Northwest: British Columbia Short Stories by David Stouck and Myler Wilkinson, Wilderness Beginnings by Rose Hertel Falkenhagen, and Talk and Log: Wilderness Politics in British Columbia, 1965-96 by Jeremy Wilson
- Writing Adolescent Despair by Andrew O'Malley
Books reviewed: Giant Despair Meets Hopeful: Kristevan Readings in Adolescent Fiction by Martha Westwater, The Boy in the Burning House: A Novel by Tim Wynne-Jones, and Looking for X by Deborah Ellis
- River Echoes by Charles Dawson
Books reviewed: River in a Dry Land: A Prairie Passage by Trevor Herriot and Steamboat Connection: Montrneal to Upper Canada 1816-1843 by Frank Mackey
MLA: Wieland, Gernot R. The Trials of Youth. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 22 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #157 (Summer 1998), (Thomas Raddall, Alice Munro & Aritha van Herk). (pg. 165 - 167)
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