Last Words. Red Deer Press
Larkin on the Shore. Red Deer Press
Both of these coming-of-age YA novels focus on teenagers whose “normal” lives have been disrupted by traumatic experiences—attempted rape, suicide, depression—yet the authors resist the temptation to sensationalize these experiences, instead focusing on the ways in which their first-person narrators navigate the aftermath of horrific events and develop effective coping skills.
Jean Mills’ Larkin on the Shore takes us to a small seaside town in Nova Scotia where sixteen-year-old Larkin has been sent to spend the summer with her paternal grandmother as she recuperates from an attempted rape and subsequent head injury (she fell from a vehicle while fighting off the sexual assault of a “cool” boy from her school). Haltingly, Larkin begins to confront some of her trauma-induced social anxieties while navigating her role as “the new girl” in a small town. As a counterpart to her experiences, her father (with whom she exchanges regular text messages) is in Vancouver supporting her estranged mother who is—once again—in rehab for drug and alcohol abuse. Add in a budding romance with a local boy, a threatening letter from the erstwhile attempted rapist in Toronto, an interfering potential stepmother, and a jealous girl attempting to poison Larkin’s new romance, and this novel could easily have deteriorated into self-indulgence, platitudes, and soap opera. But Mills’ controlled presentation keeps the plot and characters plausible, effectively raising important social issues—depression, drug abuse, bullying, sexual violence—without providing simplistic or overly didactic answers.
The author’s decision to leave the details of the attempted rape vague contribute to this control. As readers we are close to Larkin’s trauma and so do not doubt the veracity of her memories (albeit slightly muddied by alcohol). This vagueness nevertheless speaks to the very real struggle of victims to articulate their experiences, while also engaging readers in imaginatively piecing together Larkin’s story.
Unlike Larkin, the first-person narrator of Last Words, Claire (also sixteen), is not a victim of abuse; her trauma results (at least initially) from her coincidental presence on Vancouver’s Lions Gate Bridge when she becomes the last person to speak with a young man before he jumps over the railing. Unable to comprehend or accept what she has seen, Claire replays and revises the incident in her mind and dreams, becoming obsessed with reading the jumper’s text messages and emails on the cell phone he handed to her immediately before dying suicide, and finally reaching out to his friends and family. Claire’s recuperation—facilitated by a new friendship with a vibrant young woman hanging on to life in the face of a terminal cancer diagnosis, informal counselling from a man who runs a local hospice, and a slow physical recovery from a concussion received in a bike accident—is realistically presented as nuanced, and at times tentative.
In this novel, Leanne Baugh seeks to enrich her teenage reader’s understanding of depression and suicide, a goal made explicit in the closing section, “taking care of yourself . . . ,” which includes statistics and information about suicide, as well as links to Canadian support services.
These two captivating and effectively paced works present believable adolescent characters in whose lives horrific and mundane experiences coexist, and whose parents are highly fallible, often caught up in their own dramas, and yes—as clichéd as it sounds—who frequently do not understand what their teenage children are going through. Both novels provide thoughtful advice without resorting to didactic dialogue, overly contrived plots, or simplistic solutions; given this, they have the potential to engage YA readers while expanding their awareness and increasing their sensitivity.
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