Dark Times (2006), edited by Ann Walsh

Walsh - Dark TimesI once write a chapter for a book about Robert Cormier, an author well known for his starkly realist novels for young adults. Cormier explained his novels’ popularity by stating readers “say I tell it like it is. This is the way life is, and they are tired of books where everyone walks off into the sunset together” (in Herbert Foerstel’s “Voices of Banned Authors,” in Banned in the USA: A Reference Guide to Book Censorship in Schools and Public Libraries (Westport, CN: Greenwood, 2002) 150). The collection of short stories in Dark Times strikes a similar note of stark realism, revealing a number of harsh incidents and situations that real teens in our world have to deal with every day. Dark Times, however (unlike Cormier’s more lengthy and troubling œuvre) contains glimmers of hope. The protagonists’ situations are not always alleviated; the adults don’t ride in on white horses to save them; there are not always happy endings and walking off into the sunset. That is not reality now, any more than it ever has been, but in these stories “as in real life, the darkness lifts” (Walsh 9). Ann Walsh has chosen stories that show readers the strength that young adults can have: perseverance and optimism even in the darkest of times.

I have to admit that I have never reviewed a collection of stories before, and I found it difficult. It seems impossible to address the collection as a whole, sufficiently, when each of the stories themselves is so rich in meaning. Dark Times comprises 13 stories, all dealing with some form of loss; each character’s loss is unique, however similar the feelings of grief can seem. In “Snow Angel” (Carolyn Pogue), adopting a cousin with fetal alcohol syndrome has a devastating effect on Mary’s family. In “The Canoe” (Lee Maracle), a son needs to restore his relationship with his distant father after the loss of his mother. In “All is Calm” (Ann Walsh), Katie struggles with her grandmother’s Alzheimer’s, until one of the “popular” boys in her school shares his own story. In “Kick” (Betty Jane Hegerat), Justin has to find closure when the bully who taunted him dies. In “Sisters” (Sarah Ellis), the family complications of Charlotte’s “foster grandmother” are revealed at her death, helping Charlotte come to terms with her own sister’s desertion. In “Explaining Andrew” (Gina Rozon), James feels smothered as a “baby-sitter” for his brother Andrew, who suffers from schizophrenia. In “Cold Snap” (Diana Aspin), Cassie is filled with hatred when she discovers her father is having an affair. In “the sign for heaven” (Carrie Mac), Della learns to love a little girl she is teaching sign language to, only to lose her to pneumonia. In “A Few Words for My Brother (Alison Lohans), Hailey’s adopted brother, Devin, who has fetal alcohol syndrome, is responsible for the death of a friend and his other sister’s hospitalization. Hailey struggles to come to terms with her brother’s crimes and the guilt she feels for her sister’s injuries. In “Dear Family—” (Donna Gamache), Melinda reconnects with her estranged mother, who left to “find herself” as an artist in the wilds of BC. In “Dreams in a Pizza Box” (Libby Kennedy), a mother and her two daughters run from an abusive situation and end up on the streets. Struggling with illness, poverty, and homelessness, the mother does the best she can for her daughters, but in the end must leave them at a women’s shelter, where she hopes they can be cared for properly. In “Hang On” (Patricia McCowan), Kevin feels guilty when his dare-devil friend Randy ends up in a coma after a prank. The final story in the collection, “Balance Restored” (Jessi May Keller), takes us through the stages of grieving with Alexandra, whose boyfriend has died in a car crash she survived.

Together, these stories reveal a depth of human situations and responses that, taken all at once, could be overwhelming—rather like reading Robert Cormier’s novels one after the other, only (being short stories) somewhat less traumatic. Perhaps the best way to approach the collection would be to read one a day, and really think about what the story is saying. The messages are strong; each separate story—each separate voice—should be heard on its own.

Advertisements

The Phantom’s Gold (2013), by Eric Murphy

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.

The Phantom’s Gold

Murphy-Phantom Gold“William was shaken awake and knew something bad was happening” (1). The Phantom’s Gold open dramatically, and readers might think William is having a dream. But he isn’t: his life is turned upside down when his father dies in an accident that he survives. Traumatized by the event, and his mother’s attempts to move on, he runs away to his grandparents in Nova Scotia, only to find that they, too, are dealing with the death of their beloved son. This is the set-up for a fascinating novel of family and life on the sea, of history and ghosts and mending broken ties. Eric Murphy must be an avid and knowledgeable sailor, for he introduces a number of nautical terms seamlessly into his story. His characters exude the love of the sea that tradition might demand, but that is nonetheless very real to those who live a seafaring life.

William soon becomes involved in Lunenburg activities, most notably the sailing race his grandfather usually wins. This year, however, Granddad is too wrapped up in his grief to compete. With the family sail-making business at risk, William, his great-uncle Emmett and his cousin Harley take on the challenge. Crewing for his relatives, William grows into his nautical heritage at the same time as he solves a family mystery: the location of the lost fortune of his ancestor, the “Real McCoy.” Murphy’s McCoy is entirely fictional, but intertwined with the legend of William “Bill” McCoy, the American rum-runner during Prohibition. This connection between fictional and real characters is artfully constructed; readers learn not only about sailing, but also a bit about 1920s Canadian history. There is so much right about this novel—seamanship, history, narrative—that I would highly recommend it to any young readers, regardless of gender or usual interests.

Howl (2011), by Karen Hood-Caddy

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 17.3.

Howl

In Howl, Karen Hood-Caddy has created a story that will resonate strongly with many young readers, populated as it is with psychologically realistic characters whom everyone will recognize.  The protagonist, Robin, is both strong and insecure, having recently lost her mother; Robin’s older sister is a typical teen, dealing with loss by acting out, and her younger brother, “Squirm,” is both annoying and loveable.  Her father, a veterinary, is struggling to provide support for his children and hold his own life together after the loss of his wife. The crucial aspect of his own grieving is that he moves his family from Winnipeg, Manitoba, to northern Ontario where his mother lives on a large property beside a lake. Combine the complicated (and successfully portrayed) dynamics of a grieving family with bullying neighbours and growing (and not quite legal) wild-life rescue operation, and we have a novel rich with possibilities.  It may sound like there is too much going on, but Hood-Caddy balances the different, equally important, aspects of Robin’s new rural life perfectly: we see life from Robin’s young perspective, glossed by sparse and effective wisdom from her “eccentric” grandmother, Griff.

Through her involvement in a school project on ecological consciousness, and her activities helping to heal injured wild animals, Robin eventually learns to trust in happiness again.  The threats she encounters—both socially and legally—are dealt with in ways that readers will perceive as possible in their own lives.  More than just an engaging story of a young girl growing back into strength after trauma, Howl presents the reader with a map—both psychologically and logistically—of how young people can grow towards maturity and efficacy within their world.

I Owe You One (2011), by Natalie Hyde

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 17.2.

I Own You One

“How does a guy go about paying back a life debt anyway? And what if it involves a transmission tower, an ice-cream truck, and a few sticks of dynamite?”  How could any young reader resist a book whose back cover asks this question?  I Owe You One lives up to expectations, providing a fun-filled “house-that-jack-built” story of connections, both logistical and emotional.  Wes, the protagonist, builds on his dead father’s lessons of respect and honour, and learns the value of community and giving. The sacrifice he makes to help the old woman—once an adventurous ski-racer—who saved his life, and to whom he feels he owes a “life debt,” ultimately is about love and respect, not the “one” he feels he “owes” her.
It is seldom that a text written simply, for younger readers, makes me both giggle and tear up.  Natalie Hyde has created characters with humourous traits, realistic flaws, and yet a sense of integrity and community that restore one’s faith in people.  There is sufficient suspense, and juvenile pranks, to grip young readers’ imaginations, yet the ethical and moral code that Wes is striving to adhere to does not come across as didactic or incongruous. The balance is effective, resulting in a text that is as rewarding to give to a child as it will be for the child to read.