Innocent (2015), by Eric Walters

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.

Innocent

Walters - InnocentEric Walters’s Innocent is part of Orca Publishers Secrets series, a parallel series to 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. The premise of Secrets is that seven self-proclaimed “sisters”—orphans in the Benevolent Home for Necessitous Girls in Hope, Ontario—are sent out into the world when the orphanage burns down. Each of the “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.

Betty Shirley is unquestionably innocent, but her naïveté is presented at times as an unexpected ignorance—despite her high grades—and always through a narrative voice that seems not naïve so much as infantile. Throughout the book, we are repeatedly reminded of her goodness: Mrs. Hazelton gushes that her “optimism has been a blessing to us all … you always seem to see the positive in everything” (15); Joe, the cook, comments on her internal strength and goodness (26); and the servants of the family she ends up serving welcome her as a daughter: “starting today,” the housekeeper. Mrs. Meyers coos, “you do have a family—us” (54). Little things throughout the text enforce this artificial feeling of security and support: Mrs. Remington invites her servant Betty (now Elizabeth) to sit a the dinner table—“so we can talk and I can get to know you better” (59)—and drinks with her son to Elizabeth’s health at her arrival (84). In fact, Mrs. Remington orchestrates Elizabeth’s return to Kingston, as Elizabeth’s mother, Victoria, had been a maid in their home before she died. “We all knew and loved her” (61), Mrs. Remington tells Elizabeth. When Victoria became pregnant out of wedlock, Elizabeth marvels, “the Remingtons, rather than asking her to leave, … had made a place for us, and the staff had been like my family” (64). When Richie Remington wants to take Elizabeth to visit Victoria’s and his father’s graves, Elizabeth is surprised: “No one … objected to my taking the time off. In fact, Mrs. Remington had not only agreed but had asked Ralph [the gardener] to pick two big bunches of flowers” (93). It is all too lovely to be true, and the enchanted life Elizabeth leads is not sufficiently mitigated by the mystery that darkens her past.

In her envelope, Elizabeth had found a 1950 newspaper clipping describing her father’s conviction for the murder of her mother. Despite her naïveté, and an insecurity that makes her hesitant to walk to the local bank alone (130), she goes to visit him in prison. In keeping with the ethos of the novel, he “burst into tears” at seeing his “little angel” again, as he proclaims his innocence (144-47). The mystery that develops as Elizabeth and her new police-officer boyfriend, David, delve into the history of her father’s conviction is as unsurprising as its conclusion: corruption within the police force and the oligarchy, leading to murder and false conviction. The red herring in the case is the Remington’s son Richie, who has an undefined mental disability sometimes resembling Down’s syndrome, sometimes autism. Richie’s erstwhile affection for Victoria and Elizabeth, combined with his mental deficiency, are suggestive, as is a scene in which he wrings one of his pigeon’s neck—albeit because the bird was dying (172).

Reading Innocent, I couldn’t really get past the literary ghosts of Porter’s Pollyanna (1913) and Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1937). All in all, the stereotypic characterization and predictable plot suggest that Eric Walters, so capable in many others of his books, was not fully engaged in the production of this story.

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Return to Bone Tree Hill (2009), by Kristin Butcher

I found this book on my shelf. I have no idea where it came from, but I suspect from my friend Rob, who also reviews YA literature, being far more active in the children’s and YA academic literary scene than I am. If so, I will have to thank him, as it was a fascinating novel.
Set in Victoria, BC, Return to Bone Tree Hill appeals through the careful and affectionate descriptions of places that any local and even most visitors would recognize. Yet neither the title place—Bone Tree Hill—nor the opening scenes of the novel smack of local colour. In the opening lines, we are plunged into 18-year-old Jessica’s recurring dream: nightmare, in fact. Through her first-person description of the sleeplessness and trauma it is causing, we come to know Jess as a clever, caring girl, recently returned from six years with her family in Australia. Their emigration had been delayed for a number of weeks due to Jess’s contracting meningitis, which has left her with days of blankness in her childhood memories.  In this memory chasm lie the clues to Jess’s dream, a dream of murder and betrayed affection, emotions swirling together—inseparable—in Jess’s faulty, feverish memories. With the help of her pragmatic best friend Jilly, Jess struggles to regain the memories that she feels point to her murder of a childhood friend; given the strength of her dream, she can believe no other explanation.
Kristin Butcher presents her readers with clues carefully delivered to Jess’s increasingly troubled psyche in a way that is natural and believable. While one could anticipate paranormal elements at the outset, vision and reality slowly coalesce in Jess’s world until she and Jilly—and the readers—fully understand what happened on that fateful evening six years earlier. There is nothing paranormal in Jess’s recovered memory: only horror and fear and sadness.
Young readers who want a mystery with a solution that cannot easily be divined will really enjoy Return to Bone Tree Hill. It has all the right elements: protagonists who do not step out of believable activities for teens; a crime that is plausible and practicable; a solution that arises through natural processes. All is explained, and explained well; but that does not mean you will guess the end before you get there.

Desire Lines (1997), by Jack Gantos

Today we have a guest review, by my dear friend Rob Bittner, an academic specializing in GLBTQ literature for children and young adults. I had the pleasure of teaching Rob years ago, and now he has taken off and left me behind. Desire Lines was one of the novels we read for the Directed Studies course he took with me.

Desire Lines

Jack Gantos, an author I greatly admire, especially since reading his Newbery Medal winning novel, Dead End in Norvelt [2011], wrote Desire Lines with a much more disturbing and depressing tone about it, mirroring the time in which it is set, as well as the time in which it was published. This makes the ending of the book sad and frustrating, and also more heartbreaking than many gay and lesbian books that have been written in the 15 years since its publication.

Desire Lines is filled with undesirable characters and tragic consequences. It is a good example of those novels still often used to portray homosexuality not as something necessarily evil, but as something that leads to negative and destructive consequences. Through the eyes of a sexually ambiguous narrator, the story tells of two lesbians who are ratted out to an overly zealous son of a pastor and eventually attempt a murder—suicide. The novel is an ideal example of the ways in which homosexuality and religion can be caricatured.  The religious aspect of the novel is so extreme as to be almost comical at times, if it were not for the fact that it is what leads to the downfall of the queer students in the end.

Gantos, in keeping with his very sarcastic and cynical nature, writes as though he wants to find someone to blame. In the case of Desire Lines he latches on to a very charismatic Christian pastor, giving readers someone to point a finger at. While this may be helpful for some who avoid religion at all costs, I personally find Gantos’ choice unfortunate, and rather than taking an opportunity to break down a barrier, he chooses to reinforce an already bitter, mutually destructive relationship. I cannot say that this is a terrible book, because it is actually well written and contains some interesting and unique perspectives, but for those who wish to read it, keep in mind that the world is changing. (Rob Bittner)

Freak the Mighty (1993), by Rodman Philbrick

Max is obviously from a problematic union: his mother was murdered by his father, who is not a nice person…  In fact, the boys’ lives are far from the stable, safe environment many readers of the book will be familiar with. As such, Freak the Mighty is both an eye-opener from readers as well as potentially providing a sense of recognition for readers from inner-city schools or less-fortunate family situations themselves. Philbrick creates a balance in the text that allows it to work for both these audiences. Freak and Max are both outsiders, but they find each other and form a friendship that helps them to survive the harshness of their school and home lives.  The slight implication is that both boys’ mothers were into the drug scene during pregnancy, or something similar.  Freak ends up with birth defects, and Max probably suffers from foetal alcohol syndrome.  There are interesting tie-ins for teaching this text at the grade 6 or 7 level: one could, for example, look at how the system works to protect people, given Killer Kane’s pending release on bail and how worried Max’s grandparents are. One could also reveal to students the statistic that 2/3 of child abductions in Canada are by parents (Statistics Canada Report on Canadian Child Abduction).  The legal aspects and issues of safety could be fascinating for this age group.