Lily and Taylor (2013), by Elise Moser

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 19.1.

Lily and Taylor

Moser-Lily“They stuffed her brain inside her chest” (1). With an opening like that, readers are at odds to guess even the genre of Elise Moser’s novel: science fiction? fantasy? police drama? We soon learn that Taylor is watching an autopsy. A strange activity for a teen, so readers from a privileged world might assume that this is some sort of educational experience. For Taylor, it is not; Taylor is viewing the autopsy of her sister, Tannis, killed by her boyfriend in domestic abuse. The genre is now obvious: stark realism. Taylor’s life and experiences are not those of the average teen… or maybe they are. Maybe those of us living sheltered lives have no idea of what happens to far too many individuals living below the poverty line, or on the streets, or with drug or alcohol addicted guardians, or in abusive relationships that they just don’t know how to get out of.

Taylor’s story brings home the helplessness young women might feel when they do not have the strength, or more importantly the means, to escape. Lily’s life is different, but becomes intertwined with Taylor’s when Taylor is taken to live with her grandparents after Tannis’s death. Lily is alone, looking after her brain-damaged mother, who is nonetheless proclaimed capable enough to remain Lily’s legal guardian. Lily stands outside of normal teen society, but by choice. Taylor respects Lily’s strength, her individuality, and begins to stand up to those around her. The fly in the ointment is Taylor’s abusive boyfriend, Devon, who she has left behind. She is torn between fear of Devon’s unreasonable violence, and her own need to be loved by anyone. As her friendship with Lily grows, and she begins to create a normal life for herself, Devon’s telephone calls become more frequent and more threatening. When he finally appears, the girls find themselves in a very dangerous—even life-threatening—kidnapping situation. It is here that the realism of Moser’s novel comes to the fore, because it is in no way obvious which way she will take her plot. For the next 100 pages, we are fraught by the fear the girls face, the thin line between their survival and Devon’s abuse. How each of them deals with the threat they face almost tears them apart. In the end, their affection for and understanding of each other wins out, but Moser gives them—and us—nothing for free. Such is life, she tells us, when you have so few options. For Lily and Taylor, their friendship is all that is they can cling to: but they have learned that their respect, love, and loyalty might be enough.

What Jamie Saw (1995), by Carolyn Coman

14 January 2014

Coman-JamieI picked this up from a table at our yearly United Way book sale, thinking it could be interesting. The picture on the cover is very “John Walton,” but with an almost mournful expression on the young boy’s face.  With that image in mind, I began to read… “When Jamie saw him throw the baby, saw Van the little baby, saw Van throw his little sister Nin…” So much for the peaceful family security of The Waltons; what Jamie saw includes child and spousal abuse from his mother’s unstable alcoholic boyfriend. “… when Jamie saw Van throw his little sister Nin, then they moved” (7).

The incongruity between the subject matter and the narrative voice brings the reader deep into the terror that Jamie feels, his need to trust his mother, and his desire to be strong and protect her and his baby sister. The 3rd-person narration is nonetheless very much from Jamie’s perspective, and it is this child’s-view of a very adult situation that strikes such a strong chord. Through the eyes of a naïve child we can glean the difficulties Jamie’s mother is facing, see how hard she works to keep her children safe while striving to retain a sense of independence and dignity. Moving to a small trailer deep in the woods provides an isolation that is both comforting and dangerous: they can hide there, but have no help if indeed they are found… and there is the added complication of ensuring that Jamie stays in school. Having left the abusive situation with Van, Jamie’s family finds in the woods the peace they need to help heal themselves. Living through and beyond the terror of that life, Jamie finds both an inner strength and the security that finally allows him to be a child.

Parallel Visions (2012), by Cheryl Rainfield

Rainfield-VisionsParallel Visions was available for only 99¢ on a website for ebooks, which seems rather odd, as many cheap or free ebooks are, to be candid, complete trash. I found Cheryl Rainfield’s Hunted to be a gripping story of trial and compassion, so I was interested in what I might find from a cheap ebook by the same author. While Parallel Visions is shorter, at 96 pages, it is equally imbued with a sense of the power of human connection, of how love and compassion ground us within our realities, no matter how alternative those realities may seem.

In Parallel Visions, the protagonist, Kate, is asthmatic; not only that, but every time she has an asthma attack, she sees visions. These visions sometimes reveal the past, sometimes the present, and sometimes the future. It is the future visions that disturb Kate most, because whenever she tries to prevent injury to someone else, she is scoffed at, disbelieved, or worse, ultimately blamed when the horrible predictions in her vision comes true. Kate hates being “the sick kid” at school, and pushes herself harder than she should. When she is helped in an attack by the boy she likes from afar—Gil—she has a vision of both her sister and his: both in future trouble, both safe at the moment. Unlike others, Gil believes her. Together, Gil and Kate work to save their sisters, and in so doing build a relationship founded on trust (with, of course, the requisite amount of teenage romance). Kate ultimately brings on an asthma attack to learn more about what will happen to their sisters, and readers are asked to consider the cost of helping others: at what point is it more important to look after yourself? Is it worth risking your own life, knowingly, to save another’s? While Kate ultimately answers this question unequivocally, the narrative leaves room for consideration by the reader. Kate’s relationship with her family, and with Gil and his, teach her the value of her own life as part of an organic whole that is not only family, but community, and the greater world.

A Troublesome Boy (2012), by Paul Vasey

Paul Vasey is identified on the back cover as “a boarding school survivor” [my emphasis], which suggests perhaps too subjective a perspective in his fictional representation of life at an abusive Catholic boarding school. A Troublesome Boy is an extremely well-written novel, but also extremely disturbing, as it is intended to be. What is most problematic, for me, though, is not truly knowing the boundaries between reality and fiction. I would like to think that the abuse rampant at “St. Iggy’s” is fictional, but I know it is not. I would like to think that the systemic willful ignorance—even acceptance—of such abuse is fiction, but I know it is not. I would like to think that the extent of the corruption that allows Church officials to remain untried for their crimes (even the local policeman covers for the guilty priest) is fiction, but I think it is not. Still, Vasey’s novel leaves me feeling that the degree and frequency of the physical—as well as emotional and sexual—abuse that the Fathers at St. Iggy’s are responsible for is excessive: while no single incident rings false, overall Teddy and Timothy’s experiences are too much to take in. The mind (my mind at least) screams that this must be over-dramatized. Which leads me not to want to recommend this text except with the strongest of caveats against emotional trauma for the reader. And in the end, while Teddy and Timothy’s stories are told, there is no hope given.  In 1959, when the story is set, there is nothing to expect except an inexorable continuation of the criminal and damaging status quo. This, too, we know to have been true until very recently.

A powerful novel, containing perhaps too much truth. So what, then, is my problem? My problem is, I think, that beside all of the abuse, all of the sins of the Church, which are real, this novel does not show any of the very Christian, courageous individuals who also constitute the Catholic Church. I myself was smacked upside the head (granted not at boarding school) for insisting that mountains in a drawing of Jesus could be purple (defying visual logic), by a Nun who was known to enjoy hitting children; except for that one case, the Priests and Nuns who crossed my path were intelligent, compassionate, spiritually supportive individuals. Overall, the good people far outweighed the bad, positive learning far outweighed the injustices. The history of the Catholic Church as an institution is abysmal, unquestionably, but A Troublesome Boy troubled me mostly because its truth is not mitigated by the more complex reality that is, and was, even in 1959, Catholicism.