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.

What Happened to Ivy (2012), by Kathy Stinson

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 18.2.

What Happened to Ivy

In 2000, Terry Trueman published Stuck in Neutral, written from the perspective of a teenaged boy suffering from cerebral palsy so badly that he cannot communicate at all. The novel is brilliant, causing the reader to really think about what it must be like, to be an intelligence locked in a body with no controllable outward responses. In the final scene, Shawn is about to enter a fit, unsure of whether or not his father is—at that very moment—intending to “put him out of his misery.” Kathy Stinson’s What Happened to Ivy tells a similar story, from a different perspective, and is, I think, more successful for that. While Stuck in Neutral shows the internal perspective of the cerebral palsy sufferer, What Happened to Ivy tells the equally troubling tale of Ivy’s brother, David, and the father who might or might not have been instrumental in his daughter’s death.
David both loves and resents Ivy. He feels that his parents focus entirely on her, ignoring the things in his life that matter, the things most teenaged boys can share with their parents and siblings. David, like his parents, is little more than a caregiver for the severely disabled Ivy; nonetheless, the three of them love her dearly, and work unceasingly to ensure her comfort and safety. Holidaying at their cabin, while David is walking with his new girlfriend and their mother is napping, Ivy has a seizure in the water and drowns. David is understandably traumatized by the combination of guilt and relief he feels, and this is what gives the novel its power. Reading David’s story, I felt so strongly that he really needed to talk to someone his own age, who would listen and understand and give sage advice; then it occurred to me that very few people his age would have any sage advice to give: his situation was relatively unique, although survivor’s guilt itself is not. That is a role that Stinson’s book can perform admirably. There are very few books out there that can be successfully bibliotherapeutic in the strictest sense of the term, but this I think is one. David struggles both with his own guilt and with his resentment of his father, who admits in his distress that he let Ivy go as she struggled in the water during her fit. David himself points out the philosophical difference between killing and letting die, but that is not enough to heal his own wounds. In the end, as in Stuck in Neutral, we are left not knowing what the criminal and social ramifications of the situation Stinson constructs will be, but we are given ample evidence of the possibilities. We also know the direction that David’s thoughts have taken, and we see him move towards self-healing, the final step in the bibliotherapeutic process. We watch as his family’s tenuous balance and security is wrenched apart, and we watch as his mother and father and girlfriend, Hannah, help him to slowly weave together his own revised pattern for his life. When he admits the most profound source of his own guilt to Hannah, she thoughtfully remarks, “You’re human, David” (139). Simple, honest, and non-judgmental, her comment solidifies the healing process David has begun. In the penultimate scene, David is finally able to extend that healing to his suffering father. While the practicalities are not resolved, David’s own inner turmoil has been calmed, his emotional energy directed away from his own grieving towards that of his parents. He has grown into an emotional maturity that we know will help him to survive whatever happens next.

Shadow Boxing (2009), by Sherie Posesorski

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 15.2.

Shadow Boxing

The death of her beloved mother—especially in the face of her father’s insensitivity—is a hard situation for teenaged Alice.  And Alice does not deal with it well.  Fortunately, Alice has her cousin Chloe, whose mother is as insensitive to her needs as Alice’s father. Together the two of them work to overcome their several problems. If “it takes a village to raise a child,” Shadow Boxing ultimately reveals the strength of community necessary to raise psychologically healthy teenagers.
Posesorski creates truly human characters: her teens are fallible and problematic, yet innocent and engaging.  Her adults represent a fair and sufficiently comprehensive cross-section of urban Canadian life.  The one less-realistic strain in the text is the extent to which some of the adults in Alice and Chloe’s lives are willing to go to help the girls, but Posesorski works to validate their motivations… and is for the most part successful.
What is most compelling in the text is the depiction of Alice’s grieving process.  Her experiences imbue the novel with bibliotherapeutic power, but the emotions are so strong, and so real, that this power should be used judiciously.  Young readers having experienced such a loss recently might do well to wait before reading Shadow Boxing, but at some moment, for some people, this text could powerfully facilitate healing.

Somewhere in Blue (2010), by Gillian Cummings

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 15.4.

Somewhere in Blue

There seem to be a number of novels lately about children losing one of their parents, but as it has recently happened in my immediate circle, I understand the need for novels that express the various forms that grieving can take.  In Somewhere in Blue, Sandy feels her father’s death deeply, but her mother does not seem to.  Her problems are parallelled by her best friend Lennie’s dysfunctional family, and her neighbour Dan’s growing affection for her.

The descriptions of Sandy’s experience resonate with realism; we feel her loss, her angst, her solace in Dan’s affection, her confusion in trying to press forward with her life.  Through helping her friend deal with her own family troubles, Sandy finally comes to terms with her own troubles; friendship is not always exclusively supportive, but it is always both necessary and empowering.  This is the lesson Sandy learns, as she matures through the pain of loss into the strength of adulthood.  Somewhere in Blue is an excellent text to help readers understand the different forms of grieving, and how the grieving process plays out.