Faster than Truth (2019), by K.L. Denman

3 February 2020

Before I begin my rant, know that 1) I think K.L. Denman’s Faster than Truth is well worth reading, and 2) M.T. Anderson’s Feed (2002) is even more fabulous, and a far more profound consideration of our complex society than this review suggests. (I really need to write a better review of Feed, but that is a much longer project, best put off until another day.) I link the two titles because both deal with a society in which technology—specifically media and digital propaganda—have become a concern. Feed is a future dystopia; Faster than Truth is set in our current world.

Faster than Truth: The Review

It’s not an easy task, making a far-less-than-ideal protagonist sympathetic; and I’m struggling with how well I think K.L. Denman does so in Faster than Truth. Unlike Titus—the protagonist of M.T. Anderson’s Feed (2002), and the epitome of self-absorbed adolescence—Declan admits his culpability, and ultimately forms an understanding of himself and his world that allows us to feel hope for the adult he will become.

Initially, though, I felt like smacking him. Declan is in many ways a normal, impulsive adolescent, but he grates on my nerves: the hypocrisy between his self-satisfied attitude towards journalism and his actions seems like poor characterization. He expounds high ideals of journalistic integrity and yet publishes a story based on a photo of a private email, which he knows is not the complete communication, without checking any facts; the incongruity seems too great. Then I remembered that he is an adolescent, and I remembered, too, how unthinking teens can be—including myself. But Declan is clueless on so many levels. His friend Ravi is a far more insightful character. Her eye-rolls and sarcastic comments are a foil for Declan’s obtuseness, and give credence to Declan’s ability to grow into a deeper understanding as the novel progresses. Still, I wonder how a girl as artistically talented and thoughtful as Ravi could be attracted to such a shallow, self-absorbed boy as Declan appears to be.

Perhaps because of his willingness to accept the responsibility for his actions and try to set things right, Declan does reach a better understanding—unlike Titus, whose friend Violet dies as a result of the sociopolitical forces that she stands up against.

More importantly than Declan’s growth as a character, the message that Faster than Truth presents is essential knowledge for everyone in our society today. Once a message—or photo—or comment—is uploaded into the digital cloud, there is no way to retract it. The damage is done. The onus is upon us all, not just the news media, as Declan learns, to be careful with what we publish, what we say, and what we believe. Without preaching, Faster than Truth informs readers of the need to be aware of the biases in what they read online, whether from individuals or the news media. That lesson, more than anything, makes me wish all students—all people—could read Faster than Truth and internalize its message.

Deliver Us From Evie (1994), by M.E. Kerr

18 August 2017

Many years ago, I supervised Dr. Rob Bittner as an undergraduate in his exploration of the intersection of Christianity with homosexuality in young adult novels. Back then, there were so few such novels published that it has been fascinating to watch Rob’s career develop along side a growing corpus of LGBTQ fiction for young readers. The following is his simple description of M.E. Kerr’s Deliver Us From Evie.

“This novel follows a short time in the life of Parr, whose sister, Evie, is a lesbian. At first, Parr [wants to support Evie], because he wants Evie to stay and take care of the farm so he won’t have to. As soon he finds out she has no plans to stay on the farm, in a situation complicated by other issues, he and another young man hang up a derogatory sign in the town square. These events lead to the escape of Evie from the town with Patsy Duff, her lover. This story is not ultimately about explorations of sexuality and literature so much as it is about the suffering caused by being different. There are some tender moments to keep the plot from becoming melodramatic, however, and so, in the end, there is some reconciliation within the family. … The treatment of sexuality as something negative that leads to the need for escape is [a strong] example of how homosexuality is treated for the most part prior to the late 20th and early 21st centuries.”

Bench Brawl (2014), by Trevor Kew

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.

Kew - BrawlIn 1994, the title of Canada’s National Sport was divided into Canada’s National Summer Sport (still lacrosse) and Canada’s National Winter Sport (now hockey). It is surprising that it took so long: for decades before that, hockey dominated the sport scene from early autumn until late spring in most communities in Canada. An easy-read, high-interest novel about the dynamics between hockey teams and players is thus fitting for its Canadian audience. The message in Trevor Kew’s Bench Brawl is admirably one of tolerance and the benefits of teamwork, but the delivery fails to hit the goal.

Luke plays for the Upper Great River “Helmets,” firm rivals of the Lower Great River “Gloves,” and Luke is our spokesman for the aggression he and his teammates feel towards the only opponents in their small-town junior league. When the town is given the opportunity to participate in the Vancouver Invitational Hockey Tournament, the coaches determine that their only chance is to amalgamate the Helmets and Gloves into one larger team with the manpower to perhaps succeed. The players are irate, and Luke is one of the most vocal against the decision.

While team rivalry and even antagonism is perhaps common in team sports, the attitudes presented by almost all of the characters in this book leave a bitter taste. Some of the players refuse to play; some of the parents refuse to let their sons play. Few characters (the coaches, and Luke’s best friend, Cubby) articulate a balanced understanding of the situation, and their voices are not sufficiently loud. Luke’s responses, even to Cubby, are excessive: “I don’t care if Cubby is my best friend. Right now, I feel like grabbing him and shaking him and shouting, Not a big deal? What’s wrong with you? Right in to his stupid, fat face” (26). The language the boys use is often highly derogatory, and while high school students would use such language, there is little to balance against Luke’s aggressive narrative voice. Kew attempts to create this balance through Jean-Baptiste (JB), who has recently moved to Great River fro Quebec. JB lives on the Lower side of the river, but is introduced when he comes over to shoot in Luke’s drive with Luke and Cubby. He is exceptional at hockey, and incites Luke’s adversarial nature as much as he creates any bond between the rival factions.

In the end, at the tournament, the players are still at odds (Luke noting that “This team is a disaster, just like I knew it would be” [101]) until Cubby’s rich father provides a new set of hockey jerseys. All of a sudden, “something has changed [, Luke] can’t tell what it is” (108): they become a team—the Great River Vikings—working together to win a crucial game. The turnabout is too abrupt, though, too unfounded in the characterizations of Luke and his teammates. The lesson provided is valuable and one that all of us need to learn—and team sports is one of the best places to learn it—but we do not feel, at the end of Bench Brawl, that the lesson has sunk very deep.

The Truth Commission (2015), by Susan Juby

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 20.3.

Juby-TruthNormandy (“Norm”) Page lives in the shadow of her almost-megalomaniac sister, Keira, author of a popular and successful graphic novel series… based on their home life. Norm has never revealed how deeply her sister’s biting commentary—positioned as humour—has hurt her. Her pain remains hidden; she has never dared to probe into the truth of her feelings towards her dysfunctional family, always on edge to ensure that the sensibilities of Keira, artistic prodigy, remain undisturbed.

Enter the Truth Commission, organized by Norm and her two best friends, Neil and Dusk, in an attempt to reveal truths hidden in the lives around them. The dynamic between these three friends is so real; the way they communicate, the way they respond to their world, rings true. Like many teens, their youthful focus on what seems important (for them, the revealing of objective truth) misses a greater fundamental understanding of human nature and society. But that’s okay; they get there in the end. This is essentially what The Truth Commission is about: Norm and her friends growing into a deeper—if painful—understanding of the relationship between objective and functional truth. This understanding has been explored in a multitude of fictional forms (Ibsen’s 1884 Wild Duck springs to mind, as does a particularly poignant set of panels from Berkeley Breathed’s 1980s comic, Bloom County… ). The Truth Commission stays true to the message in these representations: knowing the truth does not always increase human happiness, or as Norm puts it, “The truth … is like an onion. You don’t want to peel that sucker all at once or you might never stop crying” (308).

The Truth Commission is presented as Norm’s Grade 11 “Spring Special Project” at Green Pastures Academy of Art and Applied Design, a fictional fine-art school set in Nanaimo, BC. The school-epistolary narrative structure may seem somewhat derivative, but Susan Juby raises the bar in the subgenre, avoiding the expected clichés and self-indulgent narration. Norm exhibits both the insecurities of a 16-year-old following in the footsteps of an excessively successful older sibling and the sardonic voice of a verbally precocious, intelligent young woman exploring her own artistic and psychological space. Norm’s project is a creative non-fiction writing assignment, suggested by and written for her creative writing teacher, Ms. Fowler, whom she addresses in numerous footnotes. The project-based nature of the novel allows Norm (and Juby) to play with notions of genre, voice, structure, and selection of detail in a way that forces readers to think about the metanarrative: the story is not only about Norm, but about Norm writing her own story and in so doing learning what that story really is.

While at times the footnotes seem a little more like Juby talking to the reader than Norm talking to her teacher, one of the most successfully aspects of The Truth Commission remains Norm’s narrative voice: intelligent, humourous, mildly approval-seeking, self-aware and self-deprecating, both deferential and cheeky. Norm is naïve about her effect on others at the same time as she actively strives to understand the complexities of her own life and the motivations of those around her; this combination of confusion and self-assurance are revealed subtly in the way she tells her story.

Norm learns a number of truths—some good, some bad, some painful. In retrospect, Norm tells her readers, knowing the truth didn’t obviously set her free: “that’s kind of the thing about the truth. It’s never complete and it’s never simple” (309), a lesson Norm learns to both her benefit and detriment.

Breathed - Carrot