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 16.1.
Boys, Bears, and a Serious Pair of Hiking Boots
I’m from British Columbia, where Abby McDonald’s Boys, Bears, and a Serious Pair of Hiking Boots is set. More interestingly, I’m from a small town in the mountains of BC, about 2 hours from Kamloops, albeit in a different direction from McDonald’s fictional Stillwater. I think, though, that it does not take being from small-town BC to recognize some of the errors that McDonald produces, such as: Canadian teens would never call Grade 10 and 12 students “sophomores” and “seniors” (42); the text’s geography is wrong (2 hours east of Kamloops is the Shushwap lake district, not yet the Monashees, the beginning of the Rockies; in fact, you don’t drive through the Rockies—certainly not for more than four hours—to get to anywhere in BC from Vancouver), and 2 hours from Kamloops towards the mountains means that Revelstoke or Kelowna would be the “city” for an outing; even Field, BC (population 200) has its own website; and maple syrup (being from Quebec and Vermont) is more expensive in BC than in New Jersey (and therefore not really “one of the bonuses of being north of the border” ). There are other more subtle problems with characterization and narrative consistency, such as when the protagonist Jenna talks about her “(only) ex” on page 77, but yet rationalizes on page 212 that she’d “kissed guys before. Guys I liked, guys I didn’t, guys who attacked my mouth like their tongue was a whirlpool, and guys who just kid of smushed their lips against mine and stood there, waiting”; the contrast in levels of experience jars, even after 135 pages. The Stillwater teens are equally inconsistent, but once their beings solidify into recognizably stable characters, we begin to like them; they are typical teens: thoughtless and caring at the same time, looking for excitement, and bored with most of what surrounds them. The author, however, repeatedly attributes attitudes and knowledge to her characters that they would almost certainly not hold: no adult would lend a teen a stick-shift vehicle she couldn’t drive (56); even a thoughtless teen would not take a newbie kayaking over falls when there was a lake nearby to train on (75-81); no teen boy would wear cut-offs over board shorts to go to the lake to swim (95); international trade treaties, not environmentalists, are responsible for the shutting down of BC lumber mills (100); and not even a teen from New Jersey would need to be told that some mountains have permanent snow (188). Little details, perhaps, but the sort of little details that lend authenticity to a narrative or, in this case, fail to do so.
All of this is a shame, too, because the underlying message of the text—balance, consideration, and mindfulness in one’s attitudes—is positive and powerful. Jenna learns that her “Green Teen” almost-radical environmentalism is the one-sided perspective of a city dweller who has never experienced life in tandem with nature. The teens of Stillwater are less-than-environmentally aware, but their perspective has some validity. Beginning to recognize the reality of life in Stillwater, Jenna wonders “if all [her] talk of sustainable eco-friendliness is making [her] sound like a good Green Teen activist—or just a spoilt brat” (70): the strength of the novel lies in Jenna’s developing realization of the multitude of economic and political realities that inform the adult world she is growing into.