Dancing Through the Snow (2007), by Jean Little

Little-DancingThis is a beautiful little story about Min, an orphan who remembers being abandoned, but by someone who was not even her mother.  When her fortunes turn—as indeed they must in most children’s fiction—she learns to trust, and to love.  This sounds simplistic and trite, but Little crafts the story with a realism and warmth that make us love Min and understand her fears and doubts. Just before Christmas, being shuffled from her most recent foster home to the next, Min is taken in by Dr. Jess, who empathizes with Min’s suffering. Between Jess and a lost-and-now-found-dog, Min finally finds a secure place for herself.

The novel does not descend into sentimentality, nor does it dwell on the negative influences that have shaped Min’s life (although these are necessarily revealed).  I would certainly recommend this text to young girls—with troubles or not—as an enjoyable glimpse into another’s world, one that could be the life of any of their classmates at school.

Playing with Fire (2013), by Bruce Hale

Bruce Hale kindly sent me an Advanced Reading Copy of Playing with Fire, which will be released on Monday, 24 June 2013 (I believe I have done the math correctly…). I really enjoyed it on a number of levels; I hope you all will as well.

Playing with Fire (2013)

Hale-FireIt’s wonderful when a book lives up to expectations, when there’s a consistency in tone and humour across vastly different stories. I really enjoyed Bruce Hale’s Flyboy of Underwhere (2008), and was looking forward to Playing With Fire, aimed at a slightly older reading audience. I was in no way disappointed.

“Max Segredo stood by the curb and watched his house burn. It gave off a cheery light… Max suspected that the house’s owners didn’t fully appreciate the beauty of it all” (1). Between the opening lines and the title, Playing with Fire sets up expectations of being another realist story of a child in trouble, a pyromaniac who needs psychological help: but it is not.

Hale’s humour surfaces reliably in Max’s intelligent but cheeky responses—sotto voce and aloud—to the comments of the adults in power over him. Readers will smirk or giggle at his wit and language, but with that they will recognize a strength that has enabled him to survive the foster system, to remain true to who he knows himself to be. Max does need help, though: just not psychological help. He is in trouble. He has been passed around from one foster home to another, and his case-worker is fed up with the “accidents” that keep happening around him. If he doesn’t fit in at the Merry Sunshine Orphanage, his next stop will be “juvvie.”

Merry Sunshine Orphanage, as Max sardonically points out, is “no Ritz-Carlton” (155). It is run by an Asian director, Hantai Annie, whose chopped language might offend the most politically correct critic, but with whom I had no issues. She, like the other teachers, is a caricature in some ways, but also a source of practical and familial learning in Max’s new life. Rewiring Max’s psyche on a social level—for Max has learned well to trust neither the system nor other people—is the province of the other students. Max fights with and against them; he makes mistakes; he certainly doesn’t always like them, but they help him learn the lessons that life teaches children, that he has missed out on, having been shunted from foster home to foster home.

Max’s agenda is simple: he has learned that his father—thought dead—is actually alive. He needs to escape the orphanage to be reunited with his father, to be a family again. The one problem is, Merry Sunshine Orphanage is actually a school for spies, and that makes it harder to trick the authorities… With the help of his new friends, Max moves towards his goal, only to ultimately doubt that what he seeks is actually what he wants or needs.

Playing with Fire is a palimpsest of friendship, betrayal, and loyalty, a humorous spy story layered over a base of psychological realism. Max eventually learns the lesson that Hantai Annie lives by and teaches her students: “We are your family … Family is messy […] we fight, we make mistakes, we don’t always like each other, but somehow, we forgive” (303).

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.

Somebody’s Girl (2011), by Maggie de Vries

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 16.5.

Somebody’s Girl

The premise of Somebody’s Girl is admirable and Maggie de Vries manages to bring in a number of important issues that would trouble an adopted child whose parents are having their own, long-desired but unexpected baby. Also well presented are the interactions between the teacher and children. The first few pages of the novel are certainly eye opening in de Vries ability to present the angst that a young child might feel when placed in what she considers an “unfair” situation in the classroom; these pages made me stop and think about how often I, as an adult, completely fail to appreciate the child’s perspective.
Martha is an angry child: she feels insecure within her family; she resents her birth-mother (with whom she is in sporadic contact); and she is dismissive of other children with problems, such as Chance, a child in foster care who has ADHD.  When she is partnered with Chance, whose foster mother is her mother’s best friend, she not only thinks uncharitable thoughts, but behaves inappropriately.  The teacher diffuses the situation effectively, and she learns from her time with Chance that “different” does not equate with “lesser.”  The other adults in the text, however, miss a number of opportunities of disciplining Martha effectively, at times when her behaviour and attitudes are not only inappropriate, but hurtful to those around her.  Martha as a character is too angry; as an adult reader, I could only wish that the adults in her life would give her more guidance, stronger boundaries, and listen more to what she was not saying explicitly.  In the end, while she does smooth over the difficulties with her girlfriends, and comes to value the intelligence and empathy Chance exhibits, she remains an unlikeable child.  We do not see enough of the positive development that begins, and far too much of the negative behaviour that necessitates her change in attitude.