Walking Home (2014), by Eric Walters

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 20.2.

Walters - WalkinghomecoverWhen I first picked up Walking Home to review it, I was concerned. What do I know about Kenya? How could I possibly determine the authenticity of the social and cultural space Eric Walters is describing? Fortunately, Walters includes an “Author’s Note” at the back (should this be at the front?) which tells us about the Creation of Hope Orphanage he founded in Kenya after a 2007 visit to a friend there. “Accompanied by four children from the Creation of Hope Orphanage, four young Canadians and my good friend Henry Kyatha,” Walters tells us in his “Note,” “we walked the route traveled by my characters. … Over six days, we walked more than 150 kilometers so I could know Muchoki.” With such assurance about the author’s personal investment—material and emotional—in his subject, my own approach to the novel changed: what I was about to read was fiction, certainly, but with an underlying truth that elevates the novel from interesting fiction to a reflection of reality that cannot be ignored.

Muchoki, his mother, and his little sister Jata have lost everything. On January 1st, 2008, armed assailants attacked a church in Eloret, over 300 kilometres north west of Nairobi, and burnt it—and all inside—to ashes. Walter’s fictional characters escaped this massacre. When the story opens, they are living in a refugee camp near Nairobi. When his mother dies in the refugee camp, Muchoki makes the decision to escape with Jata rather than face separation. In far away Kikima, his mother’s people live. His only choice, then, is to take Jata and face the long walk through the dangers of war-torn Nairobi, and out the other side, south towards Machakos. From there, they would ask directions to Kikima, where they hope that the family who do not know of their existence will welcome them. Strong for his sister in this and many ways, Muchoki weaves a narrative of hope for Jata: their mother’s people are Kamba, “people of the string,” so they will follow the string of the legend that will lead them unerringly to their family.

Walking Home is more than the story of Muchoki and Jata’s journey. In keeping with this sort of survival story, it is about what Muchoki learns, how he grows, as they travel towards their destination. Before he leaves the refugee camp, a friendly sergeant tells him that Kalenjin or Kamba or Kikuyu, Luo or Maasi, they are all Kenyans: together they must build a stable country. The bitter hatred Muchoki feels for those who killed his father cannot be assuaged by words, and certainly not all who the children meet on their journey help to dissipate the anger and distrust. But the balance is in their favour, and aid comes from many hands: the sergeant is Kalenjin; a Maasi father and son watch over them for a span; they aid a Luo merchant passing through Kibera, a dangerous Narobi community; their experience—far more than the sergeants words—teaches them that there is a Kenya, encompassing all tribes.

Muchoki leads Jata along the invisible string of his mother’s Kamba heritage, and—as in the folktale—it leads them home.

Tin Soldier (2014), by Sigmund Brouwer

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 20.1.

Brouwer - Tin soldierSigmund Brouwer certainly knows how to weave an intriguing mystery, and protagonist Jim Webb’s blend of hard-earned cynicism and innate compassion stand him in good stead as he unravels the secrets of his grandfather’s past. Tin Soldier is part of the second “Seven” series, which takes Webb and his six cousins on further adventures, this time self-imposed, to defend the reputation of the grandfather they all loved.

Spending the week between Christmas and New Years at their grandfather’s cabin, five of the seven cousins discover a World War II pistol, a hidden cache of fake identities and money in the wall of the cabin. The discovery sets wheels in motion, and Jim finds himself in Alabama talking to Ruby Gavin, who he met as part of his first adventure, Devil’s Pass (2012).

Tin Soldier, though, is only superficially about the mystery Webb solves; its most poignant impact comes from the lessons Webb learns. This may sound trite and clichéd, but Bouwer’s message of tolerance is not only apropos to our current sociopolitical situation, but a truth that each generation needs to learn for itself. Webb is introduced by Ruby to Vietnam War veteran Lee Knox who, she says, will be able to help determine why Webb’s grandfather had hidden two veterans’ ID cards; or, rather, two veteran’s ID cards, for while the names are different, the pictures are the same. Lee’s questions, weaving upwards through his personal contacts from the war, soon result in drastic consequences, and the two unlikely associates set out to find answers.

Webb carries serious anti-military baggage from abuse at the hands of his ex-step-father; Lee harbours deep racial anger from his experience as an activist in the Civil Rights movement. Their common purpose only mostly overcomes their seeming antipathy, but they both recognize the similarities that bind them together more than their prejudices hold them apart. Webb’s previous abuse and subsequent life on the streets of Toronto help him to empathize with the trauma Lee has experienced through the upheavals of the 1960s and 70s. His growing respect for Lee fosters a belief in Lee’s opinion that Webb’s generation have the power—like Lee’s in their time—to make a positive statement in the world: “Guy like you,” Lee asserted, “maybe you could come up with another song like ‘One Tin Soldier.” Make a difference, not just make money” (109). Brouwer provides a few lines of the song by the Canadian folk group Original Caste for his readers, and I wonder how many will seek out song—will get past the very 1970s folk feel and really listen to the meaningful words. Reading Tin Soldier I was struck with the similar pertinence of “The Fiddle and the Drum,” by a more well-known Canadian artist, Joni Mitchell. “Fiddle and the Drum,” though, is a cappella, and would not lend itself to Webb’s transposing of the song from major to minor key, reinventing it for his own generation. Brouwer takes the issues of Webb’s parents’ generation and builds an analogy that readers will not only understand but feel. Webb—and in a lesser way Lee—learns that self-respect and forgiveness are key to letting go of anger. Racism, tolerance, compassion, self-respect, and the power of song resonate through the novel. In the end, as he performs his adaptation in a small club, we cheer for Webb as much as does his audience.

Bone, Fog, Ash & Star (2014), by Catherine Egan

Once again, I have reviewed this title simultaneously for Resource Links Magazine and this blog. I just didn’t want to wait any longer to have my opinion out there. The final book in such an excellent trilogy deserves better treatment than the length of time I have put this off already…

Egan - BoneI have been really almost frightened to read Bone, Fog, Ash & Star, the last of Catherine Egan’s The Last Days of Tian Di trilogy: what if it didn’t live up to the expectations set by the first two books? What if the author lets me down? What if there are loose ends, or manipulations to tie up those ends, or gratuitous character alterations to accommodate necessary plot developments… what if… what if… The more I like a series (or in this case trilogy), the more invested I am in the author’s narrative success: hence the trauma. I need not have worried.

Egan opens her second book, The Unmaking (2013), with the unlikely (but explicable) scene of ninja-Eliza in total stealth mode. The opening of Bone, Fog, Ash & Star similarly causes the reader pause: Eliza is flying through the air on the back of a great bird: “And then she let go” (1). We hope it is a dream sequence, but after the ninja, we are not so sure… The great bird turns out to be Eliza’s shape-shifting friend, Charlie, in gryphon form; Eliza is trying to see if her dreams are true, and she herself can transform into a raven. And so the reader is brought back, how ever long away, into the world of Tian Di and all that has happened to Eliza, the Shang Sorceress, in the previous few years (and two books). Just as we become comfortably reacquainted with Eliza and her world, inexplicably, Egan kills off one of her central characters: Charlie has become a target of the Thanatosi, a breed of assassin creature who, once commanded, will not rest until their prey is dead. The emotional impact on the reader parallels Eliza’s response (not surprisingly), and we read with bated breath as Eliza travels into Death’s domain and pulls Charlie back into the world of the living.

The social and emotional relationships between the characters lie at the heart of the plot, but are not the plot. The Mancers (in charge of magic in Di Shang) recognize Eliza’s affection for Charlie, but want to marry her to a Mancer, thus not diluting her bloodline further (Eliza herself is of mixed race due to her mother’s headstrong actions in this regard). So to stop the Thanatosi, Eliza must return to the Citadel of the Mancers… which sets the plot in motion.

Ultimately, the only thing that might stop the Thanatosi are the gathering of the four Gehemmis—bone, fog, ash, and star—gifts of the Ancients that are prophesized to bestow ultimate power on the one who rejoins them. So Eliza’s quest begins: she is off after the Gehemmis; Charlie and their friend Nell are taken to the Realm of the Faeries, where he might be safe; Eliza’s only Mancer ally, Foss, is banished with her from the Citadel and is slowly dying, away from the source of his life-energy. The three plots are woven together like a loose but intricately patterned fabric: we are following one narrative thread with great interest when all of a sudden we reach the end of that pattern, and find ourselves at the beginning of another. Egan has honed this technique admirably to leave readers gripped by all three plots at once: regardless of which we are following at the moment, we do not feel abandoned by the author, nor do we lose sight of the other characters’ positions. Tricky narrative weaving, well executed.

Far more than the first two novels of the trilogy, Bone, Fog, Ash & Star alludes subtly to the eschatology of the mythological underworld: in the ferryman who conveys travellers between Di Shang and Tian Xia; in the raging river that forms the barrier between Tian Di and the underworld; in the power relations that develop between the worlds and those who live in them. These power structures feed into the political machinations that Eliza has become increasingly embroiled in as the trilogy progresses; now, in the Last Days of Tian Di, she is forced to make very mature decisions… but she is still only a 17-year-old girl. The conflict between her child-like desired to save those she loves and the more altruistic space she should inhabit as the Shang Sorceress ultimately lies at the heart of the novel. There are intimations of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy in both the imagery and the conclusion to Egan’s trilogy, but without Pullman’s rather negative perspective on belief, free will, and human agency. I wept copiously at the end of Pullman’s trilogy, but I also felt betrayed, as if the author were presenting a vision of humanity that was missing some of what I know to be true. The Last Days if Tian Di is written for a younger audience, but even as an adult reader, I feel that the choices Eliza makes reveal a real human response to her world, at both the individual and the global level. Well done, Ms. Egan. What’s next?

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.