The Mask that Sang (2016), by Susan Currie

This review was first published in a shorter version 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 22.1.

The Mask that Sang (2016)

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The Mask that Sang opens with Cass running from bullies, only to come home to learn that her mother had been fired from her sketchy job at a diner for standing up for another girl against the bullying boss. While suggests a message about bullying being endemic, the story is really about how Cass discovers her Native heritage.

Cass’s mother, Denise, has “been in over twenty foster homes” since she was given up by her mother at birth (10); as teen mother herself, she chose not to make that decision, and has raised Cass in a loving emotional security that transcends their poverty. When her dead mother’s lawyers track Denise down, she is adamant that she will have nothing to do with the house and money she has been left. Cass, however, does not carry the same emotional baggage, and talks her mother into accepting the legacy: the home and financial security Cass has always dreamed of. Wrapped up in tissue in one of the drawers, calling to her with a “mischievous purr” was an Iroquios false-face mask. The mask is responsible for the soft voices Cass has been hearing: “The hum was more like a song now … Maybe it was a voice in the wind, maybe it was several voices” (22) telling her how happy she will be in the house, coaxing her towards the drawer to be discovered.

The mask sings to her; it hums in approval when she stands up for a Native classmate, Degan Hill; it “vibrated with regret, with sorrow” (56) when she inadvertently hurts him; it gives her strength to stand up for what she knows is right. Befriending Degan brings Cass into the lives of his Native family, where she learns the stories of false face masks, and their power. When her mother unknowingly sells it with other unwanted household items, Cass and Degan struggle to retrieve it, first from a pawn shop, then from its purchaser, and ultimately from the school bully, Ellis, who turns out (stereotypically) to be dealing with issues of his own.

Despite the trope of the privileged-yet-bullied bully, the ingenuity of Cass and Degan, and their strength in standing up to Ellis’s father racism and illogical position vis-à-vis the mask, gives readers a sense both of the powerlessness of the child against unreasonable adults and the need to stand for what you believe in regardless. In a rather simplistic and idealized dénouement, their strength gives the abused Ellis strength; he returns the mask to its rightful home, and “generations of voices sang that it was home at last” (185).

Its rightful home, of course, is with someone from the Cayuga Nation, where it was created. That the mask sings to Cass is the first obvious clue. The method of delivery of the truth of Cass’s heritage, rather like Denise’s fortuitous inheritance, is rather contrived. A letter that had been left to Denise—which she threw out but Cass rescued—tells the story of Denise’s mother, a Cayuga girl, neglected by her widowed father and sent to Residential school, who (like Denise) chose better for her infant daughter. The letter itself is little more than a narrative list of all possible injuries experienced by Native children in care of the government, and reads more like an outline from a history lesson than a letter from a caring nurse. After she gives up her baby, Denise’s mother “traveled in search of answers, working as she went … she visited other countries and sought out quiet, holy places. She learned to meditate. She studied about great religions, and explored what it felt like to practice them. When she finally came home, she was ready to look at her own traditions…” (174). This passage, especially, rang false for me. I could not reconcile the previous description of her treatment with the resources necessary for such travel and learning, “working as she went” notwithstanding.

What I find troubling is that the Turtle Island Healing Centre that Denise’s fictional mother founded does possibly exist. There is a Turtle Island Healing Center in Flagstaff, Arizona (although that seems an unlikely candidate), and Turtle Island Healing and Wellness, part of the Turtle Island Native Network online, is a Canadian organization. As “Turtle Island” is a term for the world in some First Nations’ creation myths (significantly, for this story, Iroquois), it is also possible that the author has created a generic title for a Native healing centre. If the story of Denise’s mother is based on the founder of the Canadian program, on the other hand, a more careful description of her past—and perhaps an afterword explaining the historical reality—would be greatly helpful. As it stands, the lecturing tone of the historical information overshadows the delightful story of Cass’s life, and we are left wanting.

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Lumberjanes Volume 1: Beware the Kitten Holy (2015)

One of the cool things about the teenaged girls in my life having less-than-perfect organizational skills is that friends sometimes leave interesting things at our place rather than just piles of dirty clothes, shoes, make-up, questionable forms of former-food stuffs…

The other day I stumbled upon a graphic novel, Lumberjanes, the owner of which has apparently disappeared into the Black Hole of Lost Friendships. Perfect, I said: I can read that and pass it on to the Women’s Family Shelter, which is where old clothes and reviewed books from our house go to live a second (or third) life.

Lumberjanes

Written by Noelle Stevenson and Grace Ellis; Illustrated by Brooke Allen; Colours by Maarta Laiho; Letters by Aubrey Aiese

I’d heard of Lumberjanes; in fact, I recall seeing it on a display table at Emerald City Comicon, but foolishly passed it by. A shame, really, as I could have got a special “Emerald City Comicon special cover”…

My daughter tells me that the novel is strongly feminist, and fun, but that really is not giving the cleverness its due. Adventures are had! Canoes are paddled! Inter-textual allusions are made! Stereotypes are overturned! Puns are constructed! Math is employed! Lumberjanes has something for everyone. Seriously. Or not.

I had to admit, though, that I was not sure if there was going to be any degree of humour as I began, nor was I sure there would be any disrupting feminist portrayals. The introduction is a very artfully constructed expression of an ideology strongly paralleling that of the Girl Guides of Canada—without the imperialist military history—and thus deeply normalized in my own experience of being a teen. The textual precursors to the graphic narrative in each chapter likewise seem to present the characteristic woodcraft challenges Girl Guides engage in (or used to) and the social and emotional development they strive towards. Sort of.

There is an underlying sarcasm to the tone of the Lumberjanes Field Manual that increases as the novel progresses. For the “Everything Under the Sum” badge, for example, Lumberjanes are expected to “map accurately and correctly from the country itself the main features of a half mile of road, with 440 yards each side to a scale of two feet to the mile, and afterwards draw the same map from memory.” She must “be able to measure the height of a tree, a telegraph pole, and a church steeple”; “to measure the width of a river estimate the distance apart of two objects a known distance away and unapproachable”; and “have a basic understanding of theoretical mathematics and the basic laws of physics.” (I wonder if this is actually taken from some archaic nautical test book?) The basic knowledge of theoretical mathematics, though, does turn out to be crucial. A bit of plot now to elucidate…

Lumberjanes Jo, Mal, Molly, April, and Ripley are infamous for sneaking off from their cabin leader, Jen, and getting into trouble. At first, on their “Up All Night” badge, they encounter a pack of demon foxes with three eyes, who tell them to “Beware the Kitten Holy…” Jo picks up an oval metal disk, like a Celtic scarf toggle, that doubtless has a role the plots of future volumes of the series. We see this symbol again when the Scouting Lads become possessed by evil powers, but that is our only hint. In their “Naval Gauging” badge, the Lumberjanes encounter a river-monster (again with three eyes); and an eagle (with three eyes) steals their chocolate bar. In trying to retrieve it, Ripley inadvertently opens a downward spiralling tunnel, which she immediately jumps into because: Tunnel. Adventure. Lumberjane. Duh.

They find themselves in a cavern with no way out but forward. This is the crux of the story, and the allusions to other adventure narratives are beginning to be unmistakable. There are of course Mal and Ripley as names (and one wonders that little bit about Jo and Louisa May Alcott). Also the trope of the spiralling descent into the underworld, and the challenges to overcome to move forward. And Molly’s echo of The Emperor’s New Groove surprised aside when she leans against a lever in the wall: “Why is that even there?” The nature of the challenges themselves are especially familiar: arrows shooting across the tunnel triggered by a step, Molly reaching back under a falling stone door to retrieve her hat, and the maze of stone pillars crossing a chasm, with numbers rather than letters that need to be jumped on in the right order. And now we are back to the “Everything Under the Sum” badge: rather than the name of Jehovah that Indiana Jones needs to recall from his classical studies, the Lumberjanes must follow the Fibonacci series, in which, Jo tells us, “each number is the last two numbers added together: zero, one, one, two, five … All the way to infinity and beyond! [!] Or in this case, 233.” This is followed by Molly sorting out an anagram carved into the wall of the cavern, which leaves them, as in childhood games, “Home free!”

But tropes are also overturned: when they steal borrow the golden bow and arrows from the plinth that is significantly not booby-trapped like the golden head in Raiders of the Lost Ark, they considerately leave a note explaining that they will return it. And in their encounter with the Scouting Lads, gender stereotypes are flipped. The adventurous girls, battle-weary, with scratches and poison-ivy stings, are brought into the homey cabin of the nurturing Scouting Lads and given tea and cookies. The Scout Master, on the other hand, is the quintessential he-man. After lambasting the boys for entertaining “womenfolk,” he slams out of the cabin: “I AM GOING TO CATCH A FISH BY WRESTLING IT AWAY FROM A BEAR.” To which April comments in stupefaction “Wow…” and Barney replies in the language of teenaged girls: “I know, right? He’s the WORST.”

In a final Indiana-Jones-worthy scene, the Lumberjanes escape the now possessed posse of Scouting Lads and achieve their “Robyn Hood” badge, shooting the anchors of a rope bridge with their “borrowed” golden arrows. They are safe for now, but the evil Scout Master is rallying his troupes for volume 2, Lumberjanes: Friendship to the Max.

Aesop’s Secret (2012), by Claudia White

white-aesopI’ve just finished Claudia White’s Aesop’s Secret (well, obviously, because here I am reviewing it). They say don’t judge a book by its cover, but in this case I think maybe you can. Larissa Kulik’s drawing of Melissa, one of the two protagonists, is alluring, whimsical yet uncanny, and thus very fitting with the content of the book.

I have to admit it took me a little while to get into the story; the language is not as light and flowing as other books I have read recently. But then it began: I sunk deeper and deeper into the story, completely uncertain where White was taking us. The more I read, the more I honestly didn’t know, couldn’t tell, where we were headed… which of course drew me deeper still.

The concept in Aesop’s Secret is refreshingly original. A race of Others living among us (okay, not so original yet), called Athenites, used to live in harmony with humans but were forced by history to conceal their abilities. This name is purportedly based on the Greek goddess Athena’s ability to transform into other animals. Now, if you think about Ovid’s Metamorphosis (the title is a bit of a give-away), it is not only Athena, amongst the gods, who has this ability. But I’ll give White that one; after all, Athena’s mother Metis was known—more than other mythological characters—as a shape-shifter. Melissa and Felix Hutton’s mother is about to publish a treatise revealing that Athenites are real, not mythological. She seems exactly the right anthropologist to do so, as the Huttons themselves are Athenites. But someone doesn’t want that research published.

Athenites’ abilities manifest as they mature; shape-shifting is genetic and connected in some way to their hemoglobin. This sets up nicely for a plot involving biological manipulation for at least one character’s nefarious purposes. I really don’t want to say more than that; you’ll have to read the book. The originality lies largely in the parts I am not telling you: sorry. While there is some catering to the narrative expectations of child readers—I can tell you that it all works out in the end—there were quite a few “oh—didn’t see that coming” moments to keep readers on their toes.

Aesop’s Secret is the first of a trilogy, all of which are written, published, and available now to be read: the second book is Key to Kashdune (2014) followed by Servalius Window (2015), itself a novel in three parts. White avoids the “well, I might as well write another volume” problems that so much series fiction has these days. At the end of the novel, you can see how the story can go on, but you are still left satisfied. The best place to be: you can read on, but you don’t have to in order to find closure.

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Ethan (2013), by P. T. Michelle

Michelle-EthanA prequel to Brightest Kind of Darkness, Ethan gives us some of the back-story of how Ethan begins to form his connection to Nara. While the text itself gives only a short moment in Ethan’s life—from his arrival at Blue Ridge school until he meets Nara after the bomb threat—it contains glimmers of moments that help construct his self-knowledge much later in the series. P. T. Michelle obviously had the overarching narrative of her intricately constructed series well developed at this point. It was in rereading the series that I began to notice the subtle foreshadowing that Ethan contains, and saw that the more savvy of readers might not be as surprised as I was by the inklings of knowledge that Ethan and Nara use to build their understanding of the situation and their relationship.