I have just reviewed Whatever, by Ann Walsh, for Resource Links magazine. Usually, my reviews get reposted here after a year or so, but in this case, I really wanted to mention it far sooner than the next issue of Resource Links, so I have written this second review for earlier public consumption.
Whatever is not only a powerful story, but an invitation to readers to become more aware of the social system that supports them. Darrah is a normal teen, with good grades and a stable home life… yet in anger she pulls the fire alarm in the hospital where her brother is receiving treatment. Her motivation is understandable (we learn), and the repercussions of her action teach her—and the reader—that all individuals must become part of the social web that sustains us all. That sounds like rather heavy preaching, but Walsh’s novel is anything but.
In response to her action—in which an older lady is injured—Darrah is given the option of being part of the Restorative Justice Program rather than face a court hearing. When her overprotective parents immediately assert that she will, they are told by the investigating officer, in no uncertain terms, that such a decision can only be Darrah’s: Darrah has both to own her actions, and to engage completely with the solution. Such a message is empowering for teen readers, who are often still coddled by overprotective parents; the need to grow up—to be responsible for themselves—is a driving force in adolescence.
The Restorative Justice Program—implemented in British Columbia in the 1990s by the RCMP—gives young offenders who are genuinely repentant the opportunity to make reparation for breaking the law. Restorative Justice is more than community service as punishment: it requires the engagement of the offender with the offended, and a collaborative decision of what constitutes an appropriate response to the young person’s action. Walsh herself is a facilitator in the Restorative Justice Program, which is peopled largely by community volunteers, so it is not surprising that Darrah’s story is a well-constructed fictional look into the system, ultimately an encomium for its efficacy.
Darrah is ultimately sent to assist Mrs. Johnson (“Mrs. J”), the elderly lady whom she has injured, and the story moves away from the notion of crime and punishment within society, and into a deeper look at familial relationships. Why Mrs. J has chosen to help Darrah (for this is what it amounts to) mystifies Darrah. Slowly, though, Darrah learns that even adults have their secrets, and sometimes telling lies—or at least omitting information—is not the wrong choice. The complicated ethical questions that Darrah grapples with—combined with her growing respect for Mrs. J and affection for Mrs. J’s grandson—create a inspirational story that leaves us with a solid belief in self-knowledge, self-respect, and integrity as foundations of our society. With teens like Darrah to pass the reins to, all will be well.
NB: The book includes an appendix with the recipes Mrs. J teaches Darrah. More importantly, accompanying Teachers’ Activities, including a simulation Restorative Justice circle and a look at what happens when young offenders go to court, are available on Ronsdale Press’s website.