The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B (2012), by Teresa Toten

Teresa Toten’s Unlikely Hero of Room 13B, winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award for Young People’s Literature, strikes close to home. I bought it in paperback when it first came out, and Teresa was at Granville Island presenting with Eric Walters. I was anticipating with excitement talking to Teresa, with whom I was Facebook friends, at the end of the presentation, but it was not to be. I had received a call from my daughter’s school, and had to run; she had just switched meds, and they needed me to come. Teresa signed the book to my daughter as I ran out the door.

More than that, though, I discovered early in the novel how insidious my own (mild) OCD is. (I’ve been told by the professionals, though, that it is only “D” if it gets in the way of living a meaningful life… so I’ve got this.) Still, the first time Adam contemplates numbers, my mind grabbed on and wouldn’t let go. Prime numbers are particularly wonderful; it’s true. And 51. I love 51. It’s not prime, but it is in fact the product of 17 (my favourite prime number) and 3 (another number I love). Also 7. Seven is great. And 151 because of the symmetry. Six is probably the worst number, though, and is bright red. Three, on the other hand, is a gentle green and 7 fluctuates between icy and vibrant blue. Letters, too: B is a nasty tawny yellow. But perhaps I am revealing too much weird…

Still, you can see how Adam’s character resonates. Teresa Toten’s novel enables readers to begin to understand how deeply traumatic it can be when innate neurodiversity is compounded by puberty and exacerbated by familial difficulties. Adam walks a tightrope, suspended by his mental acrobatics over an ocean of uncertainty, excessive responsibility, and self-recrimination.

When Adam’s counsellor, Chuck, suggests that his therapy Group take superhero names to help them feel empowered, Adam chooses “Batman,” partner to the new girl Robyn’s obvious choice of “Robin,” “like the … well, you know.”

 … And even though he had never noticed girls before, not at all—okay a bit and sort of, but not really—Adam knew he had to save her, must save her, or die trying. For her, Adam would be and could be normal and fearless. He so wanted to be fearless. He could do it. He would be her superhero. … “Batman,” he said in a strong, clear voice. Adam Spencer Ross would be her Batman.

As Adam and Robyn grow closer, the complex dynamics of the therapy Group and his two-family life weave together with his insecurities, his sense of guilt, and his embarrassment regarding his OCD. Adam becomes more and more Robyn’s Batman, but he begins to drown in the overwhelming responsibilities both that he takes on and that others thrust upon him. His mother struggles with her own mental health issues, and Adam refuses to betray her confidence, certain that if he tries to get her help, he will be taken away from her and sent to live with his father. Which wouldn’t be so bad, except it would be abandoning his mother, who needs him: “His mother was fierce. Until she wasn’t.” His father’s home, in contrast, is neat and structured — but Adam is often the only person who can calm his five-year-old half-brother, who tends towards OCD himself. To top it all off, someone is sending vile anonymous notes to his mother, which she tries unsuccessfully to hide from Adam. It all becomes just. too. much. Something has to give.

Part of the answer is Adam’s growing maturity and greater engagement with the world around him.

Adam wasn’t sure why  he was getting these blinding little insights, but lately he’d started to notice the world around him a bit more. Just how much Chuck, Brenda [his step-mother] and his father had to put up with. Adam noticed it and it sucked that he noticed.
It was hard enough when he didn’t notice.

This growing awareness also enables him to take on some of the truths people around him are seeing:

“Yeah,” said Snooki. “Like, you are so here for everyone in here, all the time. I don’t think it even registers with you how much you carry. You worry about too many people, like your mom, and your fat friend, and your little brother, and“—she shot Robyn a look—”and God only knows who else. Cut yourself some slack, Batman.” …

“No crap, man. Too much is too much.” Iron Man was shaking his head.

Robyn’s rather snark reiteration of Snooki’s opinion reinforces the message:

You know you can’t save everybody, right? … It’s part of your problem, like Snooki was saying as she was gripping your knee. Once in a while, even that over-toasted airhead stumbles onto something. … You just have to save the world, don’t you. … But really, my very own Batman, you’ve got to let go of all those distractions, all those extra worries, and concentrate on yourself.

And most importantly for both Adam and the arch of the novel, their neighbour Mrs. Polanski delivers the sage advice that “It’s the really hard part of growing up—knowing when to leave.” So when Adam notices how well Robyn is recovering, he makes a truly heroic gesture:

“This—we, us—is not good for you, Robyn. … I need to concentrate only on me. I’m falling apart, Robyn. You can’t save me. You’re making it worse.” Everybody lies.

This is a pivotal  moment for Adam’s psychological growth; and what follows is the pivotal moment in the plot of the novel, but saying more would involve unwelcome spoilers. Adam’s small act of extreme courage sets the stage for recovery, and at the end of the novel we have no doubt that he will eventually move towards, not normalcy (“normal is a dryer setting”) but an inner strength that enables him to find balance.

At one point, Chuck tells Adam that “OCD has a more neurobiological than a psychological basis, although one’s emotional environment is critical to the presentation.” In this, as in so much of the depiction of neurodiversity in the novel, Teresa Toten is powerfully honest. Finding the balance of focus between self and environment is hard, and with Adam we have an example of both the difficulties and a path forward.

You can read more about OCD on the Canadian Mental Health Association website.

Elatsoe (2020), by Darcie Little Badger

Misinterpreting a comment in her introduction, I at first thought that Elatsoe (eh-lat-so-ay) was Darcie Little Badger’s first book, but it turns out that she is quite prolific. More books to add to my “want to read” pile, I guess.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but this wasn’t it.

Elatsoe is full of magic realism that blends seamlessly with the imagination of youth and the stories of the Lipan Apache Nation. This seamlessness was actually a problem for me, as I am almost totally unversed in the Apache culture. At one point, Ellie tells her father, “Dad. We’re Apache. Wendigo is a monster for the northerners” (chapter 7). You can hear the eye-roll. Wendigo, however, is a creature I recognize; “northerners” includes Canadian Indigenous cultures… So while it was a learning experience, but my lack of knowledge rendered me unable to tell where magic realism and imagination bordered on—or overlapped—Indigenous story.

That aside, the combination was, well—magical. We have zombies and vampires and spiritualists and wizards all practicing under the auspices and control of governmental agencies. Ellie herself is intending to go into training as a paranormal investigator: “Her second goal was paleontologist, since she could always double-check her reconstructions with careful use of ghost dinosaurs” (chapter 4). Which brings us to what makes Ellie such an interesting protagonist.

So. Backing up to the opening pages of the book, then. I admit to being a bit flummoxed, but both the initial intrigue and its resolution spurred my interest and anticipation in reading on.

Ellie bought the life-sized plastic skull at a garage sale (the goth neighbors were moving to Salem, and they could not fit an entire Halloween warehouse into their black van). After bringing the purchase home, she dug through her box of craft supplies and glued a pair of googly eyes in its shallow sockets. [So far, so normal…]

“I got you a new friend, Kirby!” Ellie said. “Here, boy! C’mon” Kirby already fetched tennis balls and puppy toys. Sure, anything looked astonishing when it zipped across the room in the mouth of an invisible dog, but a floating googly skull would be extra special. [At this point I thought: “Imaginary friend? How old is our protagonist?”]

Unfortunately, the skull terrified Kirby. He wouldn’t get near it, much less touch it. Maybe it was possessed by a demonic vacuum cleaner. More likely, the skull just smelled weird. …

“Look, a treat!” Ellie put a cheese cube in the skull’s mouth. Although ghosts didn’t eat, Kirby enjoyed sniffing his old favorites: chicken kibble, peanut butter, and cheddar. …

The world Ellie lives in only gets better. Ellie has inherited the natural abilities of “Six-Great,” her great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother, also Elatsoe, a legendary and “formidable warrior” who had learned how to raise the dead. The dead can also come to Ellie in her dreams, and when her cousin Trevor visits her one night to tell her his death was not accidental, asking her to discover the truth, her father believes her: “We will honor your cousin’s last wishes, ” he said. “Together. As a family.”

Here, Elatsoe veers off the path of expectation. Tradition—in late twentieth-century Western children’s literature at least—is for the parents to be either absent or problematic for the youthful protagonist developing a sense of self. I admit that this has changed in the last couple of decades, but it still seems true that Western youth approach adulthood through a sense of separation; in Elatsoe, maturity is acknowledged as an acceptance of and engagement in the power of family and community. I am sure that children’s literature critics have addressed the coming-of-age trope in Indigenous versus Western cultures; if not, here is fodder.

The investigations of Ellie and her friend Jay—himself part fairy—lead them to crash a charity ball held by a prominent doctor in a nearby community. Not only Ellie and Jay, but Ellie’s mother and aunt, and Jay’s sister, her basketball friends, and her vampire fiancé (and of course Ellie’s grandmother’s ghost mammoth—but you’ll have to read the book) all join in to prevent a paranormal catastrophe. They work together. And succeed. As a family.

Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares (2010), by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares (2010), by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

With the Netflix version of this YA series appearing in time for Christmas 2020, I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that the first book
—the one I read—is set over the Christmas holidays. I should have read it a month ago…

Like the book, the movie opens with Dash finding a red moleskin journal on the shelves of a bookstore reminiscent (for us West Coasters) of Powell’s in Portland, Oregon. Intrigued, he takes the book and reads the hand-written challenge inside: “I’ve left some clues for you. If you want them, turn the page. If you don’t, put the book back on the shelf, please.” What self-respecting teen reader could resist? What follows is the exchange of the moleskin journal between them, with cleverly planned dares each to the other, requiring such (for a teen) socially awkward situations as sitting on Santa’s knee, poking about under pillows on the beds in a department store, or going to a children’s movie alone.

What makes this book delightful are the quirky voices of our protagonists. Both share an esoteric love of language and tangential thinking that allows them to decipher the other’s clues, binding them together intellectually before they ever meet. This is where—for me—the movie fails utterly. I didn’t manage to get past the first few pages (as it were) of the narrative. Dash is a snarky, unattractive personality in the film, where he is a sarcastic but engaging voice in the novel; the opening scene of the film has him arrogantly correcting a bookstore staff member, who is himself obnoxious in response. We start out with a sour taste in our minds… As Lily’s words are read out in the film, too, her voice is insultingly challenging, the taunts sounding more like a schoolyard bully than the clever, humourous voice of the novel’s character. The “please” in the written version of the opening challenge creates a lighter, engaging tone that is missing from the movie.

But enough of that. The book itself is lovely. The challenges the teens present to each other are clever, but not inconsistent with what would be possible, in terms of the characters’ personalities or the real-world setting. Not surprisingly for David Levithan (I’ve not read anything else by Rachel Cohn), the psychology is sound. I like, too, that the multicultural aspects of life in New York—Christian, Jewish, gay, etc.—are integrated seamlessly into the narrative. The plot does focus on these differences, nor does it turn on an unexpected ending. It is grounded firmly on the developing relationship of two normal teens and the interesting challenges they devise for each other. It is a delightful example of the journey, not the arrival, mattering .

Charlee LeBeau & The Gambler’s Promise (2019), by C.V. Gauthier

15 October 2020

Hopefully no unforgivable spoilers, but this review does involve plot summary.

Charlee LeBeau & the Gambler’s Promise promises to be one of a trilogy; Charlee LeBeau & the Salish Wind is due out February 2021. I can’t wait! Those of you who follow my blog will remember my rants about both series fiction and cliff-hangers. Charlee LeBeau, although the first in a yet-incomplete trilogy, still satisfies. C.V. Gauthier manages to leave the narrative in a place where her readers are both reassured and yet anxious to read on. This is a difficult balance to achieve.

Charlotte—Charlee—LeBeau is the daughter of a Métis ranch foreman in Sonoma, California, in the mid 1850s. Highly intelligent, she tutors the ranch-owner’s son—her best friend, Jake Miller—in mathematics. His interest lies more with governmental history and policy (which I am guessing will become significant later in the trilogy). Charlee’s affinity for numbers, on the other hand, is a life skill she draws on throughout this first novel.

Life on the ranch is complicated: both wonderful and fraught for a fourteen-year-old girl. While friends with Jake, as her father is with his, she is taunted by his younger step-sister, Bernadette, and denigrated by his step-mother. Her father and her surrogate mother, the African-American cook, Miss Molly, help to guide the headstrong, mercurial Charlee as she begins to experience the injustices of society: the injustice preventing her father from an open relationship with Miss Molly, the injustice of the power The Missus wields, the injustice of young Bernadette’s jealous taunts and lies. The situation between Charlee and the female Millers grows progressively worse, and when Charlee’s father is killed in an accident—trying to save Bernadette from being trampled—Charlee is left with little choice. No longer welcome on the ranch, bitter and angry at having her father taken from her, Charlee feels abandoned by all except Miss Molly. With few other options, despite misgivings, Charlee chooses to move to San Francisco with father’s brother, Uncle Jack, who promises her an education.

“Papa had no use for Uncle Jack. Going with him would mean leaving everything I’d ever known. … I fought to balance myself between opposite forces. Staying and leaving. Work and school. Grief and joy.” (122)

With the promise of an education, the knowledge of some personal funds from the sale of her father’s estate, and a generous gift from Mr. Miller, Charlee’s future does not seem all that bleak.

“Don’t like this one bit,” Miss Molly tells her, though, as she prepares to leave, “you going to the city with Mr. LeBeau. Don’t care he’s Luke’s kin. … I got a bad feeling, you going to San Francisco with him. I don’t like him one bit.” (142-43)

“That part made me nervous,” Charlee admits. “Miss Molly was usually right when she had one of her feelings.” (143)

At least we were warned.

The hardship of Charlee’s life in the city is thus, although harrowing, not unexpected. Here I think is where Gauthier’s sensibilities and writing ability really come to light. We are given a troubling yet honest glimpse into the dangerous, illicit world of the San Francisco docks in the 1850s, and the struggles Charlee has with a drunken gambler for an uncle; with hiding her gender, working as a stable-boy to feed herself when her uncle won’t; with the simple act of walking safely from their hovel of a room to the stables and back every day. The life of the docks was truly multicultural, and in the 1850s that meant prejudice and discrimination leading to conflict and abuse. The book’s strength is founded on more than just good research, though: Gauthier’s description is highly evocative, her narrative solid and convincing. The hierarchy of class and culture and race, the little details of characterization, give a richness to the narrative that makes the reader really feel the atmosphere of Charlee’s world. And her isolation. Despite that some people she encounters do help her—mostly the disenfranchised, like herself: the African Americans, the Chinese, other immigrants—Charlee has no one she can trust. Her final interaction with Tubby, the stable owner, shows how really alone she is. Despite her help with his accounts, and preventing him from signing a exploitative lease, she—and thus the reader—is honestly uncertain of her position when he comments that her uncle “forgot his niece when he blew town” (250). I’m not expressing well the power of that moment, when we think that Charlee has found a safe space, and her confidence is ripped away with her disguise. At her parting, Miss Molly had told Charlee: “You have trouble with Mr. LeBeau, you find Amos [her brother] straight away. Promise me you will” (143). In the end, finding Amos, Charlee’s only viable option, turns out to be not only complicated but dangerous. Seeking help from Jake, who she had located but been too proud to approach, she prepares to meet with Amos and beg to head north with him on the Salish Wind.

There is, of course, much more going on, much more that Charlee learns, including how to cheat at gambling, the use of gunpowder in fireworks, and the law governing mining shares in British Columbia. As she moves towards an uncertain future, we are confident that she has learned well, and will do well. The self-confidence developed through the hardships she has survived alone is complemented by the realization that her pride has made her more alone than she needed to be.

“Blame had never gotten me anywhere but into spirals of anger and frustration. No wonder Papa had wanted me to learn forgiveness. I finally understood why. I wasn’t quite ready for it, not totally. But I could see the top of its sail on my horizon.” (295)

I look greatly forward to seeing where the Salish Wind will take her.