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.”

A Big Dose of Lucky (2015), by Marthe Jocelyn

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 21.1.

A Big Dose of Lucky

Jocelyn - LuckyIn 2012, Orca Publishers released Sevens, a set of seven novels by seven different authors, featuring seven male cousins each set on a quest to accomplish in order to claim their portion of their grandfather’s inheritance. Now, in 2015, Orca has released Secrets, a parallel series with female protagonists.

The foundation of this series is the destruction of an orphanage by (we assume) accidental fire. Set in 1964, at a time when national regulations governing child welfare were in flux, the series follows the lives of the seven oldest girls in the orphanage. At eighteen, the girls would have been sent out on their own; the fire merely precipitates their setting out into the world. Each of the seventeen-year-old self-proclaimed “sisters” is given an envelope by their beloved headmistress, Mrs. Hazelton; the envelopes contain information about their pasts, providing paths for them to take towards their futures.

A Big Dose of Lucky is the story of African-Canadian Malou, who has been protected from the blatant racism of the time by her almost-seclusion in the nurturing environment of the Benevolent Home for Necessitous Girls in Hope, Ontario. The information in Malou’s envelope leads her eventually to Parry Sound, where she begins to unravel the secrets of her parentage. Malou’s life is woven through with new discoveries at both the personal and societal levels; adept at historical research, Marthe Jocelyn brings into her story issues of racism, homosexuality, and the advancement of modern medicine in the 1960s, or—more significantly—in 1947 when Malou was conceived.

The first modern instances of artificial insemination were recorded in a study in 1943, followed by studies in 1948 and 1953; Jocelyn makes such important medical experiments the linchpin of her mystery. Malou’s discoveries unearth the truth about a number of young people her age in Parry Sound. Parry Sound in the 1960s had only about 6000 residents; not surprising, then, with Malou actively looking, that the obviously non-Caucasian youth would find each other. And help each other. And learn the secret of how they are connected despite their families’ different ethnicities. Malou’s quest began with only a hospital bracelet labelled “Baby Fox.” It ends with not only a mother, but also an extended family of half-siblings, and Malou rediscovers the security she lost when the Benevolent Home for Necessitous Girls burned down.

The Shell House (2002) and Sisterland (2003), by Linda Newbery

13 August 2015

The Shell House (2002)

Newbery - ShellThe Shell House is not as successful as Newbery’s Sisterland (2003), partially because the two stories in The Shell House—contemporary and WWI England—do not coalesce as seamlessly. In the modern tale, The Shell House does not present a solid perspective on homosexuality, and can only—in terms of historicity—reflect the anguish of suppression in the WWI story. Combined with one rather glaring narrative hole, these imperfections render the text less satisfying in many ways. It is still an enjoyable, worthwhile novel, but it lacks the emotional power of Sisterland.

Critic Rob Bittner’s synopsis is valuable:

“In this novel, the protagonist, Greg, deals with the elements of both sexuality and religion, but not in tandem and with no clear conclusion or acceptance of anything. He explores sexuality with a girl named Tanya and a boy named Jordan, and religion with a girl named Faith. While he discovers that faith in God may indeed be plausible, he does not come to any conclusion regarding his sexual identity, and the sub-plot of Greg and Jordan is never entirely wrapped. The parallel story of Edmund and Alex, who meet in WWI, more closely links the themes of homosexuality and religious belief, but ends up with Edmund experiencing the typical suffering associated with being gay and having the church turn against him.” (Bittner)

Sisterland (2003)

Newbery - SisterlandSisterland is a poignant investigation into the self-identity formation of the protagonist, Hilly. Her grandmother, suffering from Alzheimer’s, come to live with the family; her troubled memory—and memories—reveal a history that complicates Hilly’s adolescence even more than do her rebellious younger sister; her gay friend and his new, Palestinian boy-friend, Saeed; and her own growing attraction to Saeed’s brother, Rashid.

The plot is well constructed and engaging; we learn the truth long before Hilly does, but this does not infringe upon the text’s ability to retain our interest. Newbery’s characters are sufficiently rounded to command our affection, even the sister, Zoë, who is, to echo her description of Hilly, “a bit of a cow.”

Bye-bye, Evil Eye (2014), by Deborah Kerbel

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.

Kerbel - Evil EyeDani has been given an amazing opportunity: she has been invited to accompany her best friend, Kat, on a trip to Greece, Kat’s family’s homeland. The conditions of Dani’s travelling are to heed Kat’s mother, Mrs. Papadakis, and to actively engage in learning about Greek history and culture. Dani’s responses to her mother’s rules are those of a rebellious teen: more interested in her own enjoyment, she actively engages in swimming, flaunting Mrs. Papadoakis’s rules, and trying to find a boy for her more-innocent friend to kiss. The girls’ experiences overlay a superficial, even stereotypical portrayal of Greek culture: the leering young Greek Lothario, the maternal Aunt, the reticent but strong Uncle, and the American-Greek boy, Nick, who becomes Dani’s love interest.

Dani seems to be plagued with a run of bad luck, which Kat—stereotypically superstitious—attributes to the Evil Eye. When Dani’s bad luck follows the girls home to Toronto, she begins to believe Kat’s concerns, and appeals to Mrs. Papadakis for folkloric cures to the curse. The plot is complicated by Dani’s attraction to Nick, and her concern that Kat—who is distancing herself from Dani—is jealous.

Of course it all works out in the end. The problem with this novel for me—other than its reliance on so many cultural stereotypes—is the portrayal of teen sexuality. Dani and Kat are thirteen, but precocious for their years, obsessed with boys and little else. Or rather, Dani is obsessed with boys. Kat, it turns out, is obsessed with Dani. For me, the inclusion of Kat’s lesbianism as little more than a plot device belittles the experience of teens who are struggling with their sexuality. While Kerbel foreshadows the event in Kat’s seeming jealousy of Nick, there are no other clues. Kat kisses Dani on page 161, nine-tenths of the way through the narrative, which leaves the girls—and readers—very little space in which to explore the psychosocial issues that must arise from such a revelation. While it is reassuring that Kat’s kiss does not interfere with their friendship, the eliding of the emotions such a revelation must call forth is problematic. In the end, Dani does explain how she was flattered more than otherwise, and will support Kat in any decisions she has to make, but Kat’s lesbianism is not a sufficiently well-integrated part of her character.