Loss, Retreat, Recovery

Reviewed by Suzanne James

Both of these YA novels draw readers into extreme, uncomfortable situations. How Far We Go and How Fast parachutes us into the disturbing world of a sixteen-year-old girl whose home is regularly overrun with drunks and outcasts brought home by Maggie, one of the most non-maternal literary mothers imaginable, while Lost Boy provides a compelling account of the disorienting experiences of a young man who escapes from a polygamous cult in the interior of BC (loosely modelled on the community of Bountiful) only to find himself unequipped for “regular” life.

Instead of revelling in his new-found freedom after escaping the rigidly controlled society of Unity, the first-person narrator of Lost Boy sinks into despair as he realizes that he lacks the educational skills and cultural knowledge necessary to succeed beyond the protection of his family and the dictates of the “Prophet.” This novel, an offshoot of Shelley Hrdlitschka’s bestselling Sister Wife, traces Jon’s descent from a nervous but cautiously optimistic seventeen-year-old to a high-school dropout who spends his days aimlessly drinking and smoking marijuana, eventually stealing a watch from someone who has gone out of his way to help him. Jon becomes a self-declared failure and loser, reaching the bitter realization that, while “[t]he Prophet was full of shit,” in Unity he “was loved and cared for.” Jon “had family . . . and even had God, whatever that means.” Now he has lost everything and cannot return to his former life. Of course, Jon manages to pull himself out of his despair, finding direction and hope by assisting another escapee—his former girlfriend, who was forced to marry his father. And—as we discover in the epilogue, set five years later—he helps to establish Hope House, a haven for women fleeing the polygamous sect. Yet in spite of an overarching optimism (the novel ends with a parallel between the support for escaping women and the Underground Railroad), Hrdlitschka avoids the easy solution of having Jon and Celestine reignite their former romance. Instead, Jon becomes a backup caregiver for her baby, his aptly named half-sister, Hope. Somewhat surprisingly, the novel includes no discussion of faith outside the absolute claims of the Prophet and of Jon’s polygamous father: neither the protagonist nor any of the other escapees maintains beliefs or practices inculcated within the insular community. Hence Unity/Bountiful is presented as little more than a patriarchal, misogynistic cult offering security at the expense of self-respect and human rights.

Nora Decter’s How Far We Go and How Fast also uses a first-person narrator who faces challenges and responsibilities atypical of, though not completely implausible for, a teenager. One of the charms of this novel is the protagonist’s blunt assessment of the lifestyle of her mother and her mother’s friends. In the first chapter, Jolene (named “after a slutty lady in a Dolly Parton song”) provides a delightfully satirical description of a motley collection of the bodies of drunken adults, some total strangers, sprawled over the furniture and floor of her living room as she makes her way downstairs to make coffee, take the dog for a walk, and prepare for school. Like so many characters in YA fiction, Jolene is bored and frustrated by her high-school classes, but atypically she finds distraction and stimulation by dropping in on university lectures. In one memorable scene, an English instructor explains how the weather can function as a character in a novel, an effective metanarrative twist as the Winnipeg winter plays such a powerful role in Jolene’s day-to-day life. This fast-paced novel includes a few unexpected twists, leading to a convincing yet not overly sentimental resolution as the narrator gains perspective on her own behaviour and a more nuanced understanding of her mother’s motivations and needs. The plot’s apparent love interest proves untenable and, as in Lost Boy, readers are encouraged to look beyond romance for ways to cope with challenges, gain confidence, and find meaningful pursuits. Both How Far We Go and How Fast and Lost Boy are tightly written and engaging novels with the potential to expand the awareness of YA readers.

This review “Loss, Retreat, Recovery” originally appeared in Rescaling CanLit: Global Readings Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 238 (2019): 138-139.

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