Homecoming (2014), by Diane Dakers

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.

Dakers -  HomecomingThe title Homecoming brings up images of The Waltons, and nostalgic Christmases surrounded by love and family. This is not 15-year-old Fiona Gardener’s experience of life. Far from it. The homecoming in her story is something she dreads: her father has just been released from prison, having been incarcerated for the rape of one of Fiona’s classmates, Morgan. Fiona is fairly certain he is innocent, but struggles to deal with her uncertainty, especially when validated by the behaviours of those around her. Deemed a social pariah when her father was first charged, then again during his trial, Fiona dreads his return and the accompanying notoriety it brings.

Diane Dakers deals sensitively with the complicated emotional space that Fiona finds herself in, but also the awkwardness of those around her: her mother, her aunts and uncles, her father’s friends… people who tell her that “your father didn’t do what he was accused of doing” (20), but nonetheless walk on eggshells in his presence. Her friend Lauren is forbidden to come over; the bullies at school warn her that her father “will be looking for another playmate” (27); and the school social worker is explicit in telling Fiona what to do if she “ever feel[s] scared or threatened” by her father (35). It’s therefore not surprising that Fiona accepts the dubious friendship of Charley, a grade-twelve girl from the “hard-core crowd” (50). This friendship, again unsurprisingly, leads Fiona somewhat astray, but Dakers does not let her slip out of character: she knows what she is doing is wrong, that her parents will not approve, and yet she goes: rebellious, but also guilty and conflicted. When she is asked to trick a host’s step-father into giving them some alcohol, and resists the request, her “friends” tell her it is easy: if he is being difficult, just “pull a Morgan” (101). The pieces of the puzzle fall into place; her suspicions are confirmed. Her doubts dissolve and her new-found certainty gives her the strength to stand up and speak out. The fall-out is as expected: Fiona is “seriously grounded” (104), but content at having released her father from the social stigma that hounded him.

Whatever (2013), by Ann Walsh: Resource Links review

This review was 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 19.2. I have previously reviewed this novel on my blog, as it was so good I did not want to wait to share it with my readers. This is the first-written but second-published review.

Whatever

Walsh-Whatever“Whatever”: one of the most annoyingly dismissive epithets known to the adult world. Ann Walsh encapsulates the attitudes of surly teenhood admirably in the open pages of her novel. Darrah is angry; she feels neglected; to a large extent she is neglected. Readers thus understand completely the feelings that drive her to pull a fire alarm in the hospital where her younger brother is taken—yet again—by her excessively protective mother after an epileptic seizure. Once again, Darrah and her needs are subsumed in her parents’ concern for Andrew, and this time Darrah misses an important audition for a community play.

What follows is an intimate look at Restorative Justice, a program instituted in British Columbia in 2010 in which minor offenders who show remorse for their actions are given the opportunity for reparation in a meaningful way within their community. When Darrah is sent to assist Mrs. Johnson, who broke her leg in the fiasco that Darrah caused at the hospital, we are introduced to a curmudgeonly old lady with a strong will, strong opinions, and a deep, seldom-expressed sympathy for Darrah’s situation. Working with “Mrs. J,” Darrah not only learns some essential life skills—from cooking to compassion—but also finds a happiness that was missing from her family’s overly busy lifestyle.

This sounds relatively predictable as a plot, but Walsh’s characters—functioning within recognizable familial and social structures—are complex and deeply nuanced. We feel empathy for Darrah, experiencing her anger, her doubts, her pride, her joy, and ultimately her sorrow. For teens struggling with difficulties of all types—familial, legal, emotional—Darrah’s story provides solace through identification; I cannot recommend this novel strongly enough.

A Follow-Up Activity Guide is also available for Whatever from Ronsdale Press, Vancouver, BC.

Caught in the Act (2013), by Deb Loughhead

Loughead-CaughtThis 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.

The Orca Currents series serves a very necessary function in the literary world: adolescents who for whatever reason are not keen on reading are presented with interesting stories that speak to their real lived experiences, with characters in whom they will recognize themselves and their friends—or enemies. Deb Loughead’s Caught in the Act is a fabulous addition to the Orca Current library, with characters who speak and act like the teenagers who hang out in our upstairs TV room, or inhale all the food from our fridge as they walk out the door.

Dylan and his friends have an end-of-the-school-year ritual: they sneak out into the woods and burn all their school notes in glorious, but unfortunately careless, abandonment. You can imagine how that goes wrong. That is only the beginning of Dylan being in the wrong place at the wrong time, compounding his troubles by some of the choices he makes. Notably, he does not “rat” on the school bully, who he suspects of stealing from local summer cottages, out of fear of retaliation. Given his earlier transgressions, the police suspect him. His claim of innocence is not helped by his clothing (which disappeared while he and his friends were skinny-dipping) being found near the scene. When he discovers who the actual thief might be, he again doesn’t tell, because it might jeopardize his new job. We watch him struggle with when to tell what to whom, wondering all the time what he will decide and where it will leave him. Loughead constructs her characters carefully enough that we cannot predict Dylan’s decisions any more than adults could a real teen. Through it all, we really like Dylan, despite cringing over some of his choices, and are relieved at the end when all comes out well. It is to Loughead’s credit that while narrative expectations led us to expect a satisfactory ending, Dylan’s story in no way ensures one.

Whatever (2013), by Ann Walsh

Walsh-WhateverI 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.