Convictions (2016), by Judith Silverthorne

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 22.1.

Another obvious contender for the 2017 Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction For Young People, in my estimation. I really wish I were a juror again this year, as I have been in the past, as there are some really good historical novels for young readers out there this year.

Convictions (2016)

silverthorne-convictionsIt is 1842. Jennie’s family is starving, so she takes some mouldy oats from a milliner’s garbage. For that, she is convicted of theft and sentenced to 7 years transportation to the penal colony of Australia. She is one of 235 female convicts, including pregnant women and women with young children. Jennie is fourteen when she boards the convict ship Emily Anne; the youngest prisoner is ten-year-old Alice.

Judith Silverthorne’s account of Jennie’s life on board the Emily Anne is convincingly harsh; there is very little evasion of the horrors of the women’s lives at the hands of uncaring or even abusive guards. What helps Jennie survive are the relationships the women forge in their shared hardship. As Jennie discovers the gamut of “crimes” the women have been sentenced for, she comes to appreciate her fellow prisoners’ differences. Learned prejudices against the “doxies” Lizzie and Fanny, or the alcoholic Dottie, or the Irish-Catholic Kate, are eventually subsumed in the need to band together to survive the physical and psychological trauma of their situation. Seasickness and poor rations threaten their health. Crowded into small shared bunks or hammocks, they are afflicted by rodents, lice, and fleas. Women and children, most used to living simply but honorably, are treated like animals by the poorly paid crew and guards.

Not all the guards are as vile as “Red Bull” Chilcott, whose lecherous behaviour threatens the sexually innocent among the prisoners, and whose sexual appetites mark him as a target for Fanny’s manipulations on behalf of her friends. Some of the guards are cruel but not abusive, and some appear more sympathetic towards the women’s plight. We see a subtle connection growing between Jennie and a young crew-member, Nate, and when the ship is wrecked on a reef near Tenerife, we are not surprised that the intelligent Nate is instrumental in saving a small number of crew and prisoners.

Silverthorne does not stray from her excellent historical representation even in the romance that is beginning to grow between Jennie and Nate. The women’s ultimate fate after being saved by a passing Scottish vessel—whose Captain and crew are welcoming neither to the English nor to women—is logically supportable in terms of the political, financial, and cultural reality Silverthorne is recreating. Nate expresses his hope that his and Jennie’s lives will follow a similar path, and we are shown a narrative direction in which that could be true; but at the close of the novel, we are left with as much uncertainly as Jennie and the other survivors. As readers, we are convinced of the historical truth reflected in Convictions; Jennie’s story remains in our minds, her future pondered, long after the last page is read.

When Morning Comes (2016), by Arushi Raina

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 22.2.

Having been a juror for the Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction For Young People for the past two years (it is a two-year appointment), I have to say that When Morning Comes stands a very good chance of being the winner for 2017. That cannot, of course, be reflected in my review for Resource Links, but I wanted to add that opinion to my appreciation of Raina’s excellent novel.

When Morning Comes (2016)

raina-when-morning-comesI am not an expert on African politics, but have been come increasingly interested through a number of fabulous young adult novels that have come my way. First there was

I am not an expert on African politics, but have been come increasingly interested through a number of fabulous young adult novels that have come my way. First there was Cape Town (2012), by Brenda Hammond; then Walking Home (2014), by Eric Walters; and now When Morning Comes, by Arushi Raina. They just keep getting better. Raina’s complex characterization and intricate plot kept me enthralled from my first meeting of Zanele and Jack and Meena through to the devastatingly inevitable conclusion. Raina does not capitulate to simplistic narrative expectations of some current YA genres, wherein the teen protagonists rise above the socio-political powers against which they struggle and succeed; this is perhaps because the novel is based on historical events, but it is nonetheless admirably handled. Raina’s characters are young: inexperienced yet passionate, afraid yet determined. They behave immaturely under pressure. They make mistakes. They—and more importantly those around them—suffer for those mistakes. And so they learn, but that learning sometimes comes too late. The bravery of some characters seems at times almost excessive, but it is always believable.

The story is set in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1976. We meet Zanele as she and her friends attempt to bomb a power station. The attempt fails; two of her friends are arrested; Zanele escapes. Theirs is but a small act of terrorism aimed at helping to overthrow the apartheid government. As the novel progresses, Zanele’s life becomes inextricably entwined with that of Jack, a naïve white boy who is entranced by Zanele; Meena, daughter of a South Asian shopkeeper who is being extorted by a local gang; and Thabo, one of the gang members and Zanele’s childhood friend. The intricate connections Raina constructs in her narrative all lead inexorably toward the tragedy that erupted on June 16th, 1976. The Soweto Uprising is infamous in South African history for the police brutality used against the 15,000 students in the protest that quickly became a riot. Raina’s novel traces the path from the government imposition of Afrikaans as the language of instruction, through the Soweto high school students’ growing dissatisfaction, to their cohesive plan of action. The short “historical intro”—significantly at the back of the novel—informs the reader of the real historical moment, but the novel itself is a far stronger exposition of the students’ anger and power than any historical commentary could be.

When Everything Feels Like the Movies (2014), by Raziel Reid

Reid - moviesRaziel Reid describes his When Everything Feels Like the Movies as “Sweet Valley High meets 120 Days of Sodom”; Marquis de Sade describes his 120 Days of Sodom as “the most impure tale that has ever been told since our world began.” Reid’s assessment, then, is not far wrong, which does raise the question: What on earth were the judges thinking in awarding this novel the Governor-General’s Award for Children’s Literature for 2014? It certainly isn’t, in my estimation, children’s literature. Not even if you include YA literature therein. Middle-school protagonist notwithstanding.

The story is based on that of “Lawrence (Larry) Fobes King, an openly gay 15-year-old who was shot to death by an eighth grade classmate inside a school in Oxnard, Calif., in 2008. The incident happened after he’d asked the teen who was convicted in his murder to be his Valentine.” This is a fairly accurate synopsis of the plot of Reid’s novel. What the author has done (as is true in most such cases) is to attempt to provided a psychosocial rationale for the incident: in Reid’s case, from the perspective of the victim, not the perpetrator. So Jude, the protagonist, is in Grade 8 in an American school, the flamboyantly gay son of a stripper mother who lives with her abusive partner, Jude’s father having left early in his life. Jude’s best friend is Angela, a “hard, fast volt” who, “when she got a text from one of her boyfriends immediately got horny and said she had to go” (9).

Jude has a crush on Luke, a straight boy who hangs with the crowd who delight in bullying Jude. Apparently a sucker for punishment, Jude sets his goal to ask Luke to be his date at the high school Valentine’s Day dance. The plot swirls inexorably towards what we know (even without the news story, which, fortunately, is obscure enough for most readers to avoid the spoilers) can only be a bad scene in the movie that is Jude’s life. For that is how Jude sees himself: an actor in a movie over which he has little control, but which he can deconstruct at will, rationalizing changes in director’s instructions, costar’s caprices, and even the script. This self-deception supports him through the bullying, the slurs, the ostracizing he experiences, and this is one of the strengths of the novel. Reid manages to sustain the palimpsest of Jude’s Hollywood illusion over reality such that we see the protective artifice that he weaves around himself for what it is, while Jude does not. Even in the final moment, Jude’s spirit does not abandon the deception: “I just stood there with my arms crossed like I was refusing to film this last scene, like this wasn’t the ending I’d signed on for” (166)—which of course it isn’t.

Paralleling Jude’s self-perception as a great Hollywood prospective is his less-than-ideal reality. This is where the novel slips away, descending from “artistically interesting” into the realm of inauthenticity. Reid notes that one of the reason he wrote the book is that “a lot of teenagers think that fame is the ultimate love, and that they need to obtain it to be happy.” In this, as much else I think, he is overgeneralizing. At rare times, Jude and his fellow students feel like they might be the middle-school students that they are cast as, but Angela’s abortion-as-birth-control habit, and the characters’ explicit drug-related and sexual language (and activities) suggest not only older students, but youth who are edgy in a way that would set them farther apart from society than Reid’s characters are positioned. His characterization of Jude has aspects of an individual who might almost exist, but is inconsistent as well as unrepresentative. Unrepresentative is fine, of course: most students are not overtly and proudly gay in Grade 8, and representation of homosexuality in literature for children and young adults is not only good but necessary. Heteronormative literature still has far too much shelf-space for marginalized voices to be heard. But is Jude representative of any real psychic space? To me, it feels as if Jude were a character written by a 24-year-old gay male who cannot step outside of his own experiences to create a young gay student who thinks like, well, a young gay student. The narrative voice he has constructed uses sexually explicit language and analogy that even some adults would not follow. The allusions to Hollywood film stars and gossip are common knowledge that can be googled, but the mature content of Jude’s thoughts and responses to his world seem completely out of keeping with the lived experiences of any small-town 15 year old. (And his is a small town, despite that his mother works fairly successfully as a stripper, which seems unlikely in a town where “the movie theatre had only one screen, which played only one movie a week … The town had one newspaper… There was a mine where everyone worked…” [18].) Reid’s world-building is manifestly flawed; without an internally consistent narrative world within which to act, his characters are set adrift.

When I first attempted to read this novel, I stopped at page 8, less than a page into the novel, when Angela is talking about Jude’s mother:

“Forty years old and still dressing like an underage slut,” Angela laughed. “I think I’ll make a facebook fan page for her when I get home.”

I licked a picture in the tabloid I was holding. “Sorry,” I said, “I have to make the Hemsworth brothers as wet as they make me.”

“No need to apologize, dude,” Angel[sic] snapped a polaroid. “I’d do them both at the same time.”

“You’d do them both in the same hole,” I laughed. “But who wouldn’t?” (8)

This is the way the characters communicate throughout the text. As a moment of bravado, posturing for each other or their friends, such language could be understandable, but it is not just the language they use with each other that is problematic. Jude’s thoughts never crawl out of this sexual slough. He describes a classmate as wearing “glossy red lipstick that made her lips look juicy, like she had just sucked on a tampon” (19-20); he talks about his “dream of being a prison bitch” (47)—certainly not something to be glorified; he chastises himself that he was “born with a cunt in [his] head” (106); he tells us that they called Angela’s drug pipe “Liberace, partly because it was so sparkly and partially because Angela used it as a anal dildo” (109); he thinks of his father’s hands, so much like his: “I always thought of him when I looked at my hands. Especially when they were around my dick” (130). An equal-opportunity offender, Reid bases his off-colour comments on both secular and religious sources: talking about her most recent abortion, Angela notes that “the nurse looked at me as if I was masturbating with a crucifix” (25); and Jude describes his younger self as excited to live with his grandmother, who “had a pool. I could pretend I was Natalie Wood!” (34). While not sexual, that is just gratuitously offensive.

While I find the veiled stories of Angela and Luke intriguing, Jude’s persona is not just disturbed (understandably) but highly disturbing. I return to my suspicion about Reid’s possible inability to extricate himself as an author from the fiction he has created. When the announcement of his award came, Reid told a CBC interviewer, he “couldn’t help but jump out of bed to do a ‘little naked dance around the apartment,’” and that winning makes him “feel like I just popped three Molly and I’m going to dance for the rest of my life.” Check out his blog, too: Blitz & Shitz in the Daily Xtra: Everything Gay, Every Day. (There is, sadly, even a music video for the song he wrote to accompany the book.) His authorial voice is not sufficiently different from Jude’s narrative voice for me to consider Jude—as a fictional creation—to be well-conceived and objectively constructed.

The description on the back of the Advanced Reading Copy of the novel reads:

When Everything Feels Like the Movies is an edgy, extravagant novel for young people and others, full of gender-bending teen glamour, dark mischief, and enough melodrama to incite the paparazzi. A boy who smells like Chanel Mademoiselle, calls Blair Waldorf his biggest childhood influence, and reads Old Hollywood star biographies like gospel doesn’t have the easiest path to travel in life, but somehow, Jude paves his road with yellow bricks and makes us all wish we could join him over the rainbow.”

Not me.

The Fault in Our Stars (2014), by John Green

Green-FaultYou know one of the worst reading experiences, one I have only recently discovered? Being old enough to need reading glasses and reading a YA novel the last third of which has me fairly continually in tears. Yes, I am talking about the latest YA phenomenon, The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green.

Critics have raved about this novel, calling it the salvation of YA literature, and to his great credit, the author denies that 1) YA needs saving and 2) that his book would be the one to do so. Good for him. The Fault in Our Stars is spectacular, I must admit, and tear-jerking in a way that is neither excessive (despite my previous comments) nor maudlin. He strikes an excellent balance amongst humour, pathos, and honest reflection on the world as presented by two intellectually precocious teens. Hazel’s language and awareness sometimes sit uneasily—notably her internal reflection and discussions with Augustus placed beside her conversation with Peter Van Houten—but that fades beside an existential awareness far beyond that of her peers.

It would be difficult for a narrative to support this existential non-angst were it not for the relatively unique positions Augustus and Hazel find themselves in: a cancer “survivor” and a terminal cancer “victim,” both of whom transcend the labels society casts upon them to establish a love that is both compassionate and emotionally mature. I can’t go into the plot without creating spoilers, which in some cases is not a problem, but would be for The Fault in Our Stars. Suffice it to say that the plot itself is not the driving force behind the narrative; it is somewhat predictable, but this in no way detracts from the power of the novel.

I can see why the YA world is aflame with admiration for this novel: it is perhaps to our generation what books like Stephen Chbosky’s recently revived Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999)—or even earlier, Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (1974) or Judy Blume’s Forever (1975)—were in their cultural moments. This not to equate these novels in terms of literary endeavours or accomplishments, but only to say that they all speak to the ethos of their times in some important ways. But like the earlier works, The Fault in Our Stars is, as John Green himself says, only one of “more than a thousand books … read by at least ten thousand teenagers a year.” So many of these novels have so much to say; they all work together to (in John Green’s metaphor) fill our world’s YA bookshelves.

I did think of The Perks of Being a Wallflower when I began reading The Fault in Our Stars, which struck me as odd, because my response to novels is not generally to be reminded of another… hence my previous comments. By the end of the novel, though, I was struck by yet another comparison, however actually erroneous. The only other novel I have recently read that both forced tears and yet filled me with great joy is Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe (2012). I am, as I have said, old enough that these novels are not being written to resonate with me as a reader, yet they carry such emotional truths, presented through such beautifully crafted characters, that no one—adolescent, adult, or anyone in between—can help but respond. I’ll stop gushing now, and let you run off and read The Fault in Our Stars, or Aristotle and Dante, or any other of the myriad exceptional YA novels being produced these days…