Cabin Girl (2014), by Kristin Butcher

Butcher-Cabin GirlI really have to stop reviewing Kristin Butcher’s novels for the Orca Soundings and Current series. How many ways can I find to say “Kristin Butcher shows yet again that effective character development and interesting, non-trivial plots can be created in the scope of a short novel written for reluctant readers”? In Cabin Girl, Butcher (yet again) tells an engaging story that will attract readers from the target demographic: teenagers who struggle with reading, for whatever reason.

Like most 16 year olds, Bailey wants to prove to her parents that she is capable of making her own decisions about her life. She talks them into letting her work at a fly-in resort owned by her godfather, Gabe: “They’re counting on him to keep an eye on me,” she tells her 19-year-old cabin-mate, April. The work is harder than she expected; she is less adept that she would like; her boss “could out-sour lemons” (15); and mornings come earlier at Witch Lake than they ever did at home… All in all, Bailey’s summer work experience starts out rocky. April befriends her, though, and the tentative friendship she builds with the waitress develops a slight tinge of hero worship. (“She smart. She’s good at her job, and she’s tough. Did you know she’s been on her own since she was fourteen?”) Her listener, the long-time employee Ed, provides a subtle foreshadowing of where Butcher will take her story: “Are you the president of her fan club, or what?” “Now you’re making fun of me.” “Sorry, I don’t mean to. You’re actually a breath of fresh air around here. So I’d hate—” Then April reappears, stifling any explanation (29).

The plot threads winding about each other involve Bailey’s developing but complicated relationship with April; the mysterious activities of Dennis Savoy, a soft, middle-aged guest who is neither a fisherman nor a photographer, although he brings gear for both; and the local legend of Witch Lake, a ghost story frightening enough to give any teenaged girl the heebie-geebies. When Meira, the second waitress, is taken to hospital with a badly burned arm, and April and Bailey are given her duties to split, the friendship becomes strained. Bailey is puzzled by April’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (61) personality change, and by the number of slip-ups in her work that she can neither remember nor explain. The reader can perhaps see what is coming, but Bailey’s innocent trust in the friendship she has worked hard to develop blinds her to April’s inexplicable, malicious behaviour. Bailey is not the weak “princess” April assumes her to be, though. Her eyes opened, Bailey quickly learns to rely on herself, and let April rue the consequences of her own actions.

“Things have a way of working out,” Ed tells Bailey, and for Bailey they do. In the end, April is held responsible for her decisions in the adult world, and Bailey learns a valuable second-hand lesson—or rather, has her moral position validated: April “has had a hard go of it, but … that doesn’t make it okay to abuse the rules and other people” (118). In Cabin Girl, Butcher resists the temptation to over-dramatize her characters or their situation: Bailey’s experience does not result in drastic changes in her life, or her world view, but rather provides a moment of growth in confidence in both herself and the adult world around her.

The Fault in Our Stars (2014), by John Green

Green-FaultYou know one of the worst reading experiences, one I have only recently discovered? Being old enough to need reading glasses and reading a YA novel the last third of which has me fairly continually in tears. Yes, I am talking about the latest YA phenomenon, The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green.

Critics have raved about this novel, calling it the salvation of YA literature, and to his great credit, the author denies that 1) YA needs saving and 2) that his book would be the one to do so. Good for him. The Fault in Our Stars is spectacular, I must admit, and tear-jerking in a way that is neither excessive (despite my previous comments) nor maudlin. He strikes an excellent balance amongst humour, pathos, and honest reflection on the world as presented by two intellectually precocious teens. Hazel’s language and awareness sometimes sit uneasily—notably her internal reflection and discussions with Augustus placed beside her conversation with Peter Van Houten—but that fades beside an existential awareness far beyond that of her peers.

It would be difficult for a narrative to support this existential non-angst were it not for the relatively unique positions Augustus and Hazel find themselves in: a cancer “survivor” and a terminal cancer “victim,” both of whom transcend the labels society casts upon them to establish a love that is both compassionate and emotionally mature. I can’t go into the plot without creating spoilers, which in some cases is not a problem, but would be for The Fault in Our Stars. Suffice it to say that the plot itself is not the driving force behind the narrative; it is somewhat predictable, but this in no way detracts from the power of the novel.

I can see why the YA world is aflame with admiration for this novel: it is perhaps to our generation what books like Stephen Chbosky’s recently revived Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999)—or even earlier, Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (1974) or Judy Blume’s Forever (1975)—were in their cultural moments. This not to equate these novels in terms of literary endeavours or accomplishments, but only to say that they all speak to the ethos of their times in some important ways. But like the earlier works, The Fault in Our Stars is, as John Green himself says, only one of “more than a thousand books … read by at least ten thousand teenagers a year.” So many of these novels have so much to say; they all work together to (in John Green’s metaphor) fill our world’s YA bookshelves.

I did think of The Perks of Being a Wallflower when I began reading The Fault in Our Stars, which struck me as odd, because my response to novels is not generally to be reminded of another… hence my previous comments. By the end of the novel, though, I was struck by yet another comparison, however actually erroneous. The only other novel I have recently read that both forced tears and yet filled me with great joy is Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (2012). I am, as I have said, old enough that these novels are not being written to resonate with me as a reader, yet they carry such emotional truths, presented through such beautifully crafted characters, that no one—adolescent, adult, or anyone in between—can help but respond. I’ll stop gushing now, and let you run off and read The Fault in Our Stars, or Aristotle and Dante, or any other of the myriad exceptional YA novels being produced these days…

Dark Times (2006), edited by Ann Walsh

Walsh - Dark TimesI once write a chapter for a book about Robert Cormier, an author well known for his starkly realist novels for young adults. Cormier explained his novels’ popularity by stating readers “say I tell it like it is. This is the way life is, and they are tired of books where everyone walks off into the sunset together” (in Herbert Foerstel’s “Voices of Banned Authors,” in Banned in the USA: A Reference Guide to Book Censorship in Schools and Public Libraries (Westport, CN: Greenwood, 2002) 150). The collection of short stories in Dark Times strikes a similar note of stark realism, revealing a number of harsh incidents and situations that real teens in our world have to deal with every day. Dark Times, however (unlike Cormier’s more lengthy and troubling œuvre) contains glimmers of hope. The protagonists’ situations are not always alleviated; the adults don’t ride in on white horses to save them; there are not always happy endings and walking off into the sunset. That is not reality now, any more than it ever has been, but in these stories “as in real life, the darkness lifts” (Walsh 9). Ann Walsh has chosen stories that show readers the strength that young adults can have: perseverance and optimism even in the darkest of times.

I have to admit that I have never reviewed a collection of stories before, and I found it difficult. It seems impossible to address the collection as a whole, sufficiently, when each of the stories themselves is so rich in meaning. Dark Times comprises 13 stories, all dealing with some form of loss; each character’s loss is unique, however similar the feelings of grief can seem. In “Snow Angel” (Carolyn Pogue), adopting a cousin with fetal alcohol syndrome has a devastating effect on Mary’s family. In “The Canoe” (Lee Maracle), a son needs to restore his relationship with his distant father after the loss of his mother. In “All is Calm” (Ann Walsh), Katie struggles with her grandmother’s Alzheimer’s, until one of the “popular” boys in her school shares his own story. In “Kick” (Betty Jane Hegerat), Justin has to find closure when the bully who taunted him dies. In “Sisters” (Sarah Ellis), the family complications of Charlotte’s “foster grandmother” are revealed at her death, helping Charlotte come to terms with her own sister’s desertion. In “Explaining Andrew” (Gina Rozon), James feels smothered as a “baby-sitter” for his brother Andrew, who suffers from schizophrenia. In “Cold Snap” (Diana Aspin), Cassie is filled with hatred when she discovers her father is having an affair. In “the sign for heaven” (Carrie Mac), Della learns to love a little girl she is teaching sign language to, only to lose her to pneumonia. In “A Few Words for My Brother (Alison Lohans), Hailey’s adopted brother, Devin, who has fetal alcohol syndrome, is responsible for the death of a friend and his other sister’s hospitalization. Hailey struggles to come to terms with her brother’s crimes and the guilt she feels for her sister’s injuries. In “Dear Family—” (Donna Gamache), Melinda reconnects with her estranged mother, who left to “find herself” as an artist in the wilds of BC. In “Dreams in a Pizza Box” (Libby Kennedy), a mother and her two daughters run from an abusive situation and end up on the streets. Struggling with illness, poverty, and homelessness, the mother does the best she can for her daughters, but in the end must leave them at a women’s shelter, where she hopes they can be cared for properly. In “Hang On” (Patricia McCowan), Kevin feels guilty when his dare-devil friend Randy ends up in a coma after a prank. The final story in the collection, “Balance Restored” (Jessi May Keller), takes us through the stages of grieving with Alexandra, whose boyfriend has died in a car crash she survived.

Together, these stories reveal a depth of human situations and responses that, taken all at once, could be overwhelming—rather like reading Robert Cormier’s novels one after the other, only (being short stories) somewhat less traumatic. Perhaps the best way to approach the collection would be to read one a day, and really think about what the story is saying. The messages are strong; each separate story—each separate voice—should be heard on its own.

Ethan (2013), by P. T. Michelle

Michelle-EthanA prequel to Brightest Kind of Darkness, Ethan gives us some of the back-story of how Ethan begins to form his connection to Nara. While the text itself gives only a short moment in Ethan’s life—from his arrival at Blue Ridge school until he meets Nara after the bomb threat—it contains glimmers of moments that help construct his self-knowledge much later in the series. P. T. Michelle obviously had the overarching narrative of her intricately constructed series well developed at this point. It was in rereading the series that I began to notice the subtle foreshadowing that Ethan contains, and saw that the more savvy of readers might not be as surprised as I was by the inklings of knowledge that Ethan and Nara use to build their understanding of the situation and their relationship.