Coming of Age in a World of Change

  • Leanne Lieberman
    The Book of Trees. Orca Book Publishers
  • Margaret Buffie
    Winter Shadows. Tundra Books
Reviewed by Sarika P. Bose

The female protagonists of these young adult novels are at turning points of their lives. At the brink of independent adulthood, they are aware that they have to think seriously about the consequences of their decisions. Mia, Beatrice, and Cassandra have extra challenges because of their dysfunctional families, and they feel isolated from their contemporaries who appear to come from more stable and conventional ones. Their fathers’ inability to emotionally support or protect them is the catalyst towards change in their lives.

In Leane Lieberman’s The Book of Trees, Mia’s sense of emptiness in her life, deeply connected to both her breakup with her boyfriend and a desperate need for a consistent, loving relationship with her musician father, leads her to explore her Jewish heritage. Despite her liberal, activist mother’s unease, Mia leaves Toronto with a post-secondary scholarship to study at an orthodox school in Jerusalem. Mia expects Jerusalem and the school to elevate her life and give it meaning and purpose. She is initially attracted to an orthodox Jewish lifestyle precisely because of its difference from what has been her normal lifestyle, which includes casual sex and drug and alcohol use, and an upbringing that allows her much independence. She interprets her peers’ rule-bound Jewish lifestyle and their families’ controlling parental approach as gateways to self-fulfillment and manifestations of noble ideals. However, instead of giving her inner peace, Jerusalem provides an immediate and intense education in Middle-East politics, and Mia quickly becomes disillusioned with her peers’ self-absorption and narrow-mindedness. She is not convinced by her peers’ vague logic about their rights to the land, and feels increasingly stifled by their assumption that to question those rights or the interpretation of Jewish law and custom is to declare one’s opposition to them. The trees of the book’s title represent the disjunction between the positive ideals of harmony in her Israeli and Jewish-Canadian community and the ugly reality of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship that she experiences.

The trees planted over a razed Arab village by Jewish settlers are superficial symbols of beauty and fertility, which fail in their goal to erase the reality of forcible relocation of non-Jewish communities. Those trees also literalize the superficiality of her peers’ ideals, hiding what Mia sees as systematized dehumanization of Palestinians and the erosion of their rights.

Mia’s decision to leave the Jewish school and community is perhaps expected, though the steps to her decision-making might not be so. After a night of sex and marijuana with a Canadian musician who resembles her previous boyfriend, Mia decides to join him and other foreign nationals in a grassroots movement that helps Palestinians rebuild their homes. The reader seems to be expected to share Mia’s position as an outsider in both Jewish culture and in the Middle-Eastern situation, so that Mia’s final decision seems logical and ethical. Mia’s point of view is represented as open-minded, inclusive and just. However, some readers might find the underlying assumption that drinking at bars, casual sex, and casual parental relationships is not just the norm, but normal, an equally unsatisfactory alternative to the rigid lifestyle represented by the Jewish community in Jerusalem. Yet the novel’s open-ended resolution and its portrayal of a strong, critical thinker in Mia, does promise a positive future for the character.
Margaret Buffie’s Winter Shadows tells the intertwined stories of two Manitoba girls who are separated by time but united by parallel situations. Their timelines intersect at similar moments in their lives when they are trying to adjust to reconfigurations of their families, brought about by the remarriage of their fathers. The strained relationships with their stepmothers and stepsiblings form the bulk of the crises in the novels, and at moments of particular emotional distress, the girls have visions of each other that give them strength and encouragement; the past and future influence each other for the better. The modern Cassandra is worried she is losing her mind and seeing ghosts, but Beatrice, who lives in the nineteenth century (and is later revealed as Cassandra’s ancestor), is closer to her First Nations roots and more open-minded about visions. Although the wicked stepmother paradigm seems to be followed initially, the novels move towards better comprehension of the stepmothers’ characters, not surprisingly misinterpreted by the teenagers at the beginning. The novel’s hopeful ending comes from more effective communication and greater understanding of others’ positions, an understanding that leaves the protagonists with an improved, if not an ideal relationship with the stepfamily.

Mia, Cassandra, and Beatrice are sympathetic protagonists whose stories of eventual personal empowerment are thought-provoking. The well-told narratives and the argument that critical thinking leads to compassion and just action towards others make these novels attractive choices for young adults.

This review “Coming of Age in a World of Change” originally appeared in Spectres of Modernism. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 209 (Summer 2011): 169-170.

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