Calling Out Intolerance

Reviewed by Suzanne James

Exploiting the coming-of-age trope, these two YA novels provide sensitive explorations of heteronormative biases and intolerance in the context of family relationships, and both protagonists develop meaningful relationships with non-normative “others.”

Zoe, the first-person narrator of Allan Stratton’s The Way Back Home, exudes frustration as she struggles to protect her beloved grandmother from what she considers to be the evil machinations of her parents, who want to ship Granny off to a seniors’ home, and the truly evil machinations of her cousin, a classic bully obsessed with appearing cool by humiliating Zoe at every opportunity. The novel is fast-paced, and by the halfway point, Zoe has been hung by her feet off the side of a bridge by her cousin’s friends (narrowly escaping falling onto broken glass and barbed wire in the creek bed below), and falsely accused of lying, using drugs, and behaving promiscuously by her naive parents; and she is now on the run with Granny, whom she has rescued from Greenview Haven. But things become more complicated as Granny’s Alzheimer’s worsens, and Zoe gradually discovers that her long-lost Uncle Teddy, whom they have tracked down in Toronto, is now her Aunt Teddi, and—even more significantly—that her grandmother caused the family rift years before by rejecting her trans daughter. Of course, reunions occur, forgiveness is granted, and justice is restored as the lying and sadistic behaviour of Zoe’s cousin is exposed. Yet Stratton closes the novel on a more reflective, less action-packed note as the narrative circles back to the narrator, her grandmother’s death, and its aftermath.

Karen Nesbitt’s Subject to Change, another first-person narrative, has a much less dramatic pace, but the authenticity of the voice, the setting, and the situations are quietly compelling. Declan, a sixteen-year-old boy in small-town Quebec, struggles to survive in a society which seems determined to misunderstand and thwart him. His delinquent older brother is both an irritant and a threat, his well-meaning teachers fail to recognize the motives behind his minor rule-breaking and mediocre academic performance, and he feels responsible for his mother, a single parent since a divorce five years earlier. But herein lies the more significant conflict, as readers gradually discover. The disappearance of Declan’s father was not simply a result of the divorce, or of the affair which instigated it; it occurred because his father is now living as a gay man, a situation which both embarrasses and enrages the narrator. Interestingly, Declan’s close friends prove far less concerned about his father’s sexual orientation, and the novel picks up speed as Declan comes to see beyond his heteronormative anxieties, learning to forgive the loving father who was also governed by fear.

Both novels explore forgiveness and understanding, and both adopt a similar strategy in order to challenge homophobic and transphobic attitudes: the author (and, by extension, readers) “call out” the intolerant characters, either implicitly or explicitly. Yet the Granny who rejects her trans daughter in The Way Back Home and the son who rejects his gay father in Subject to Change are presented empathetically; we are drawn into their struggles and we applaud their growth. And although they remain peripheral, the voices of the non-normative characters can also be heard in the final chapters of each of these works.

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