Walking Home (2014), by Eric Walters

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 20.2.

Walters - WalkinghomecoverWhen I first picked up Walking Home to review it, I was concerned. What do I know about Kenya? How could I possibly determine the authenticity of the social and cultural space Eric Walters is describing? Fortunately, Walters includes an “Author’s Note” at the back (should this be at the front?) which tells us about the Creation of Hope Orphanage he founded in Kenya after a 2007 visit to a friend there. “Accompanied by four children from the Creation of Hope Orphanage, four young Canadians and my good friend Henry Kyatha,” Walters tells us in his “Note,” “we walked the route traveled by my characters. … Over six days, we walked more than 150 kilometers so I could know Muchoki.” With such assurance about the author’s personal investment—material and emotional—in his subject, my own approach to the novel changed: what I was about to read was fiction, certainly, but with an underlying truth that elevates the novel from interesting fiction to a reflection of reality that cannot be ignored.

Muchoki, his mother, and his little sister Jata have lost everything. On January 1st, 2008, armed assailants attacked a church in Eloret, over 300 kilometres north west of Nairobi, and burnt it—and all inside—to ashes. Walter’s fictional characters escaped this massacre. When the story opens, they are living in a refugee camp near Nairobi. When his mother dies in the refugee camp, Muchoki makes the decision to escape with Jata rather than face separation. In far away Kikima, his mother’s people live. His only choice, then, is to take Jata and face the long walk through the dangers of war-torn Nairobi, and out the other side, south towards Machakos. From there, they would ask directions to Kikima, where they hope that the family who do not know of their existence will welcome them. Strong for his sister in this and many ways, Muchoki weaves a narrative of hope for Jata: their mother’s people are Kamba, “people of the string,” so they will follow the string of the legend that will lead them unerringly to their family.

Walking Home is more than the story of Muchoki and Jata’s journey. In keeping with this sort of survival story, it is about what Muchoki learns, how he grows, as they travel towards their destination. Before he leaves the refugee camp, a friendly sergeant tells him that Kalenjin or Kamba or Kikuyu, Luo or Maasi, they are all Kenyans: together they must build a stable country. The bitter hatred Muchoki feels for those who killed his father cannot be assuaged by words, and certainly not all who the children meet on their journey help to dissipate the anger and distrust. But the balance is in their favour, and aid comes from many hands: the sergeant is Kalenjin; a Maasi father and son watch over them for a span; they aid a Luo merchant passing through Kibera, a dangerous Narobi community; their experience—far more than the sergeants words—teaches them that there is a Kenya, encompassing all tribes.

Muchoki leads Jata along the invisible string of his mother’s Kamba heritage, and—as in the folktale—it leads them home.

Bench Brawl (2014), by Trevor Kew

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 20.2.

Kew - BrawlIn 1994, the title of Canada’s National Sport was divided into Canada’s National Summer Sport (still lacrosse) and Canada’s National Winter Sport (now hockey). It is surprising that it took so long: for decades before that, hockey dominated the sport scene from early autumn until late spring in most communities in Canada. An easy-read, high-interest novel about the dynamics between hockey teams and players is thus fitting for its Canadian audience. The message in Trevor Kew’s Bench Brawl is admirably one of tolerance and the benefits of teamwork, but the delivery fails to hit the goal.

Luke plays for the Upper Great River “Helmets,” firm rivals of the Lower Great River “Gloves,” and Luke is our spokesman for the aggression he and his teammates feel towards the only opponents in their small-town junior league. When the town is given the opportunity to participate in the Vancouver Invitational Hockey Tournament, the coaches determine that their only chance is to amalgamate the Helmets and Gloves into one larger team with the manpower to perhaps succeed. The players are irate, and Luke is one of the most vocal against the decision.

While team rivalry and even antagonism is perhaps common in team sports, the attitudes presented by almost all of the characters in this book leave a bitter taste. Some of the players refuse to play; some of the parents refuse to let their sons play. Few characters (the coaches, and Luke’s best friend, Cubby) articulate a balanced understanding of the situation, and their voices are not sufficiently loud. Luke’s responses, even to Cubby, are excessive: “I don’t care if Cubby is my best friend. Right now, I feel like grabbing him and shaking him and shouting, Not a big deal? What’s wrong with you? Right in to his stupid, fat face” (26). The language the boys use is often highly derogatory, and while high school students would use such language, there is little to balance against Luke’s aggressive narrative voice. Kew attempts to create this balance through Jean-Baptiste (JB), who has recently moved to Great River fro Quebec. JB lives on the Lower side of the river, but is introduced when he comes over to shoot in Luke’s drive with Luke and Cubby. He is exceptional at hockey, and incites Luke’s adversarial nature as much as he creates any bond between the rival factions.

In the end, at the tournament, the players are still at odds (Luke noting that “This team is a disaster, just like I knew it would be” [101]) until Cubby’s rich father provides a new set of hockey jerseys. All of a sudden, “something has changed [, Luke] can’t tell what it is” (108): they become a team—the Great River Vikings—working together to win a crucial game. The turnabout is too abrupt, though, too unfounded in the characterizations of Luke and his teammates. The lesson provided is valuable and one that all of us need to learn—and team sports is one of the best places to learn it—but we do not feel, at the end of Bench Brawl, that the lesson has sunk very deep.

The Truth Commission (2015), by Susan Juby

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 20.3.

Juby-TruthNormandy (“Norm”) Page lives in the shadow of her almost-megalomaniac sister, Keira, author of a popular and successful graphic novel series… based on their home life. Norm has never revealed how deeply her sister’s biting commentary—positioned as humour—has hurt her. Her pain remains hidden; she has never dared to probe into the truth of her feelings towards her dysfunctional family, always on edge to ensure that the sensibilities of Keira, artistic prodigy, remain undisturbed.

Enter the Truth Commission, organized by Norm and her two best friends, Neil and Dusk, in an attempt to reveal truths hidden in the lives around them. The dynamic between these three friends is so real; the way they communicate, the way they respond to their world, rings true. Like many teens, their youthful focus on what seems important (for them, the revealing of objective truth) misses a greater fundamental understanding of human nature and society. But that’s okay; they get there in the end. This is essentially what The Truth Commission is about: Norm and her friends growing into a deeper—if painful—understanding of the relationship between objective and functional truth. This understanding has been explored in a multitude of fictional forms (Ibsen’s 1884 Wild Duck springs to mind, as does a particularly poignant set of panels from Berkeley Breathed’s 1980s comic, Bloom County… ). The Truth Commission stays true to the message in these representations: knowing the truth does not always increase human happiness, or as Norm puts it, “The truth … is like an onion. You don’t want to peel that sucker all at once or you might never stop crying” (308).

The Truth Commission is presented as Norm’s Grade 11 “Spring Special Project” at Green Pastures Academy of Art and Applied Design, a fictional fine-art school set in Nanaimo, BC. The school-epistolary narrative structure may seem somewhat derivative, but Susan Juby raises the bar in the subgenre, avoiding the expected clichés and self-indulgent narration. Norm exhibits both the insecurities of a 16-year-old following in the footsteps of an excessively successful older sibling and the sardonic voice of a verbally precocious, intelligent young woman exploring her own artistic and psychological space. Norm’s project is a creative non-fiction writing assignment, suggested by and written for her creative writing teacher, Ms. Fowler, whom she addresses in numerous footnotes. The project-based nature of the novel allows Norm (and Juby) to play with notions of genre, voice, structure, and selection of detail in a way that forces readers to think about the metanarrative: the story is not only about Norm, but about Norm writing her own story and in so doing learning what that story really is.

While at times the footnotes seem a little more like Juby talking to the reader than Norm talking to her teacher, one of the most successfully aspects of The Truth Commission remains Norm’s narrative voice: intelligent, humourous, mildly approval-seeking, self-aware and self-deprecating, both deferential and cheeky. Norm is naïve about her effect on others at the same time as she actively strives to understand the complexities of her own life and the motivations of those around her; this combination of confusion and self-assurance are revealed subtly in the way she tells her story.

Norm learns a number of truths—some good, some bad, some painful. In retrospect, Norm tells her readers, knowing the truth didn’t obviously set her free: “that’s kind of the thing about the truth. It’s never complete and it’s never simple” (309), a lesson Norm learns to both her benefit and detriment.

Breathed - Carrot

One Hungry Heron (2014), by Carolyn Beck and Karen Patkau

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 20.3.

Beck - HeronI’ve always been particularly fond of herons, especially in art, so One Hungry Heron immediately appealed. The beauty of Karen Patkau’s rich illustrations of pond life springs out of the pages, the main element of the book’s engaging graphic layout. Creatures from the drawings on the right creep, swim, slither into the white-space where Carolyn Beck’s simple poem counts up from one hungry heron to ten tiny turtles… only to quickly slide back down through the numbers as raindrops on the water send the creatures to seek cover. In the upper left corner of each page spread, too, Patkau has decorated the brightly coloured numbers with small pictures of the pond’s creatures, complementing the larger pictures on the right.

The movement in the structure of the poem is paralleled by the onomatopœia: “dragonflies / hover and dip. / Whiz! Pause! Whiz! / Zoom! Zoom! Zip!” The images and sounds together create a rolling, fluid experience for the young reader, interrupted only by the occasional stilted syntax of some of the verses or uneven meter of the poetry. It is unfortunate when such a beautiful little book is marred by imperfect poetics; One Hungry Heron comes so close to being a spectacular book. Certainly, it is still beautiful, but the overall reading (listening…) experience will be lessened by the uneven meter and imperfect rhyme scheme.