Out of Focus is not for the weak at heart. It is also not only for YA readers. Margaret Buffie has nailed her characters perfectly. Again. As an adult reading this novel, I learned as much about my own mistaken interpretation of the world as we could ever hope that a younger reader might. It is true, too, what she says about black & white photography: “if you really wanted to catch the essence of people—see what was really going on inside them—you had to use black-and-white film. … Color shots are like sunglasses, reflecting back social masks” (20). Buffie’s text is like a black & white photo: she doesn’t pull her punches, but presents us with a concentrated version of her protagonist’s emotional turmoil: pure, unmitigated adolescence.
Bernie (Bernice Dodd) is in charge of her life. She has to be: her father has deserted them, and her mother is an alcoholic who takes off on binges and doesn’t return for days. For four years—since she was 12—Bernie has had to be mother to herself, her younger brother and sister, and even her own mother, Celia. At the opening of the book, she has had enough. The level of anger Bernie feels at first seems not only completely reasonable, but even productive. Her threats to call in Social Services force her mother to take the family to a property in the north-western Ontario woods, leaving behind the lure of Winnipeg, its bars, and its enabling associations. Once they reach their old family home, bequeathed to Celia by her mother’s sister Charlotte, Bernie’s plan to establish a sense of security and purpose within the family begins to work. Why, then, does Bernie become progressively more angry? Why can she not allow herself to heal?
In a less realistic novel, the woods, and the lake, and the fresh misty morning, air would cause a healing to seep up and catch Bernie unaware; we would peacefully watch the process, comfortable in knowing what must happen in a children’s book. But life does not always work according to narrative expectations, not even Bernie’s. She is powerless to affect her own transformation: “Happy? I wanted me to be happy, too. But it wasn’t going to happen any time soon. … I was fighting a war here. If no one understood that, then tough” (192). Our own angst growing with hers, we watch Bernie slipping towards the edge of a recognized social and emotional chasm that is hard to climb out of. Our own anger builds as we watch her making mistakes, when we can so clearly see—as do some of the adults around her—what is happening in her life. Like those around her, we are no longer sure we even like Bernie. Buffie reveals her remarkable narrative abilities in showing us only enough to understand her characters’ emotions, never enough to fully anticipate the plot. In the end, even when what we wanted to happen comes to pass, we are exhausted by the emotional roller-coaster we have just been on with Bernie. But like Bernie—and hopefully the adolescent reader—we have learned a powerful lesson: no matter how wrong we are, no matter how far off track, it is always possible to start over, sometimes even to mend the rents in our emotional world.