The Shape of Our Times

Reviewed by Stephen Dunning

Ghost Moon is the middle installment of John Wilson’s Desert Legend Trilogy, and picks up immediately where the first, Written in Blood, leaves off. Set in the late 1870s in the Territory of New Mexico, it traces the continuing adventures of seventeen-year-old James Doolen, originally from Yale, British Columbia. The setting inevitably carries a certain appeal, and in this case primarily for boys, since females play virtually no role in the novel. And while Doolen himself may prove too sensitive, self-reflective, and emotionally mature for his age to convince many readers, Bill Bonney—whose sinister, yet ambivalent, presence shapes Doolen’s adventures—more than compensates for this weakness. Indeed, he is the most intriguing character in the work, like two men living in the same body, a fun-loving boy and a hard-eyed killer. And Wilson is wise not to resolve this ambiguity.

Unfortunately, when dealing with race and class, Wilson falls too readily into a predictable form of politically correct didacticism, which may rankle. The book, however, displays the author’s self-confessed addiction to history. He clearly knows this period, conveys the setting well, and despite Doolen’s frequent postmodern anxieties about his own narrative, offers up a good straightforward story in clear unpretentious prose.

Like Wilson, Carol Matas specializes in young adult fiction. The Edge of When resulted from the updating of three works written thirty years earlier, the themes of which seem more urgent and relevant now than they did then. Part One, Part Two, and Part Three in the new work deal respectively with time travel into three possible futures: a post-nuclear apocalypse, a repressive Corporatocracy, and a stable, environmentally sustainable global society.

Such issues are indeed timely, and the subject of many fine works, including such notables as Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and (for younger readers) Scott Westerfeld’s Ugly Series and M. T. Anderson’s Feed. The success of such works depends on their psychological realism and firm grasp of the (often horrific) context within which they place their characters. Some focus on individual existential struggles, while others address the systemic issues that led to the disaster. Unfortunately, Parts One and Two of Matas’ work disappoint on both counts. Rebecca, the twelve-year-old narrator, remains psychologically unconvincing throughout, and the book simply fails to acknowledge the systemic problems facing humanity. Even children know that they are not going to change the world simply by organizing a few demonstrations. Part Three proves generally more credible and engaging, in particular because it begins to address the ontological paradoxes that emerge when altering the past. Despite these shortcomings, Matas correctly recognizes that globally aware young people require hope given the staggering challenges they face. If this novel inspires even one reader to act courageously, I imagine that she will count it a success.

Fanatics, the sequel to William Bell’s highly successful Stones (2001), is also set in Orillia, features the same two teenage protagonists, and draws on similar genres, including romance of the archive, gothic horror, and investigative thriller. In exchange for space to set up his woodworking business, Garret Havelock agrees to repair the library of a lakeside mansion that has been damaged by a fire, and then to catalogue its contents with his girlfriend’s help. They soon discover that the library is haunted by the historical fifteenth-century monk, Girolamo Savonarola (1452-98), who apparently caused the fire, killing the owner of the library, a fictional professor of Renaissance history deeply hostile to Savonarola’s puritanical reforms. The epigraph to the work makes Bell’s sympathies clear: Flee, flee from those who speak in the name of God.

That Bell includes a contemporary subplot involving Islamist terrorists, loosely based on the Toronto 18, indicates his willingness to strain plot credibility to hammer home the point that strong religious conviction proves the perennial enemy of democracy and tolerance. Bell, however, would do well to digest Terry Eagleton’s review of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and also to consider the unprecedented scale of oppression and slaughter issuing from modern secular states. And one might also quibble with Bell’s treatment of Savonarola, the multifaceted historical Reformer, who in the novel proves simply malevolent.

But this partisan moralizing does not seriously detract from the overall appeal of the work. Bell conveys both the historical and contemporary settings assuredly and economically, offering memorable descriptions of food, summer storms, and even a hostile, pyromaniacal ghost. And though Bell handles the extraordinary adequately, his true forte is the quotidian. Moreover, the voice of the protagonist here is sure and authentic throughout. He also paces the work well, telling an engaging story and building to a satisfying conclusion. In short, Bell has provided a worthy successor to Stones, one that should confirm his place as one of Canada’s pre-eminent writers of juvenile fiction.

This review “The Shape of Our Times” originally appeared in Science & Canadian Literature. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 221 (Summer 2014): 186-87.

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