Having really enjoyed Kristin Butchers Return to Bone Tree Hill (2009), I was excited to receive Truths I Learned from Sam to review. It was with a bit of trepidation that I began, though, having read the back cover, which informed me that “[i]n a story story about relationships [good] and about how bad things happen to good people [a bit disconcerting], Dani discovers that sometimes the only villain is life itself [ouch].” I wasn’t sure I was ready for another emotional rollercoaster of YA angst. I need not have been worried: my concerns were misplaced, where my excited expectations certainly were not.
Butcher’s depiction of life in rural BC shows a remarkable acumen, if not lived experience. Webb’s River is like so many small interior towns—Spuzzum, Malakwa, Yank, Moyer: little on the road but a gas station, but teaming with life in the woods and hills around them. Dani learns to ride; she learns to drive an old standard transmission clunker. We can smell the sage in the air she breathes, feel the dust in our throats at the rodeo.
The foundation of Butcher’s novel, though, is her adeptness at character construction and development. Dani is a typical teen in a not-so-typical situation. Her mother is getting married. Again. For the fifth time, actually. We shouldn’t like her mother, and we can understand why Dani might have problems with the relationship. Throughout the novel, though, Dani’s mother shows her love for Dani—however self-centred she may be in some ways—and Dani relies on her mother’s affection and support, which she receives—albeit over her cell phone. Theirs is a sometimes-awkward understanding, but they do understand and love one another. So when Dani’s mother and her new husband go off on a honeymoon to Europe, and Dani is sent off to the Cariboo to her mother’s brother—the “black sheep” of the family whom Dani had never heard of—Dani is more worried about her six weeks in a strange place than she is upset by her mother’s seeming desertion.
Sam, Dani’s uncle, turns out to be one of the salt-of-the-earth individuals without whom the world (and YA fiction) could not survive. Sam’s obvious pride in Dani, his affection, and his hand’s-off parenting attitude help her to grow in a number of ways important to a teenaged girl. He treats her like a young adult, not a young girl, and she responds with the respect and maturity he takes for granted; it is obvious that he has never had a teenager before. When he finds Dani and her new boyfriend Micah kissing, for example, he merely asks “You kids having a good time?” (92): slightly protectively, but certainly not facetiously. Although he watches over her, he knows Dani is in a safe place, in safe hands, and he leaves her free to enjoy her youth.
We watch Dani grow into her place in this new community without the sense of dread that the back cover suggests… almost. There are just enough subtle clues for the reader to anticipate the emotional crisis that comes near the end—which I will not spoil the story by revealing. I knew what was coming, and was saddened by the inevitability. What I did not expect was the heart-wrenching yet beautiful twist Butcher throws in, causing tears of both joy and sorrow. Through the sadness, Dani is left in a calm and accepting emotional space, considering her future with hope and anticipation. While Truths I Learned from Sam provides a strong and satisfying sense of closure, I really want to know what happens in Dani and Micah’s future…