Lily and Taylor (2013), by Elise Moser

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 19.1.

Lily and Taylor

Moser-Lily“They stuffed her brain inside her chest” (1). With an opening like that, readers are at odds to guess even the genre of Elise Moser’s novel: science fiction? fantasy? police drama? We soon learn that Taylor is watching an autopsy. A strange activity for a teen, so readers from a privileged world might assume that this is some sort of educational experience. For Taylor, it is not; Taylor is viewing the autopsy of her sister, Tannis, killed by her boyfriend in domestic abuse. The genre is now obvious: stark realism. Taylor’s life and experiences are not those of the average teen… or maybe they are. Maybe those of us living sheltered lives have no idea of what happens to far too many individuals living below the poverty line, or on the streets, or with drug or alcohol addicted guardians, or in abusive relationships that they just don’t know how to get out of.

Taylor’s story brings home the helplessness young women might feel when they do not have the strength, or more importantly the means, to escape. Lily’s life is different, but becomes intertwined with Taylor’s when Taylor is taken to live with her grandparents after Tannis’s death. Lily is alone, looking after her brain-damaged mother, who is nonetheless proclaimed capable enough to remain Lily’s legal guardian. Lily stands outside of normal teen society, but by choice. Taylor respects Lily’s strength, her individuality, and begins to stand up to those around her. The fly in the ointment is Taylor’s abusive boyfriend, Devon, who she has left behind. She is torn between fear of Devon’s unreasonable violence, and her own need to be loved by anyone. As her friendship with Lily grows, and she begins to create a normal life for herself, Devon’s telephone calls become more frequent and more threatening. When he finally appears, the girls find themselves in a very dangerous—even life-threatening—kidnapping situation. It is here that the realism of Moser’s novel comes to the fore, because it is in no way obvious which way she will take her plot. For the next 100 pages, we are fraught by the fear the girls face, the thin line between their survival and Devon’s abuse. How each of them deals with the threat they face almost tears them apart. In the end, their affection for and understanding of each other wins out, but Moser gives them—and us—nothing for free. Such is life, she tells us, when you have so few options. For Lily and Taylor, their friendship is all that is they can cling to: but they have learned that their respect, love, and loyalty might be enough.

The Night Wanderer: A Native Gothic Novel (2011), by Drew Hayden Taylor

The young adult literary world has become inundated with supernatural beings: werewolves, zombies, and vampires abound, in a multitude of previously unrecognized forms. It seems the Twilight saga has much to answer for. Wading through the paranormal and mythical chaff, however, we occasionally stumble upon a brilliant, innovative use of the supernatural tropes so lately bent into any narrative form authors see fit: for zombies, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s movie Shaun of the Dead (2004); for werewolves, perhaps Annette Curtis Klause’s Blood and Chocolate (1997); for vampires, until recently, Scott Westerfeld’s Peeps (2005). Now we have a new player on the field: Drew Hayden Taylor’s The Night Wanderer: A Native Gothic Novel.

The Night Wanderer: A Native Gothic Novel

Initially given to me by a colleague who is teaching it at the university level, I was uncertain what to expect, but the novel is billed as Taylor’s “first novel for young people” (backmatter). Superficially, it provides a lot of what Twilight fans are looking for: a young female protagonist, an attractive male vampire who for unexplained reasons is abstaining from feasting on human blood, a forest setting near a Native community. What is positively, powerfully different is that Taylor’s heroine is herself Anishinabe, or what less-aware readers would call Ojibwe, as is our vampyric lead. This set-up allows Taylor to integrate into his mystery a significant number of social issues that face contemporary Native communities in Canada.

Tiffany Hunter lives with her father and grandmother, “Granny Ruth,” on the reservation at Otter Lake, Ontario. Granny Ruth represents the old ways, one of the community’s last fluent speakers of the Anishinabe language. Through her mixture of traditional ways and common human wisdom, we see hope for Tiffany’s future, despite her seemingly bleak present.

Tiffany has recently started dating a chuganosh, a White boy, which accentuates the tension building in her family since her mother left them, moving to Edmonton with her White lover. Tiffany’s relationship with Tony, like so much in the novel, could go either way. The result is thus neither surprising nor unbelievable; the deep realism of the novel lies more in the details, the little things that both her friends and family, and his, say. This realism coexists with a paranormal mystery that draws equally on Native mythology, contemporary YA literary tropes, and more traditional vampire lore. Readers aware of any of these will recognize early the nature of “monster” (4) that Pierre L’Errant (“The Wanderer”) has become; the mystery springs from being unable to predict what he will do, and how Tiffany will fit into his plans.

While Taylor is not as successful as some authors at entering into the psyche of his young female protagonist—his prose feels sometimes more like an adult male describing a teenaged girl, than the thoughts of a teenaged girl herself—his prose is lucid and at times beautiful. When Pierre describes his life, or forcefully reminds Tiffany of the joys in her own, there is a poignancy in the message that will, I think, reach the YA reader effectively. Similarly, when characters are in the woods of Otter Lake, there is no doubt of the power—for both good and evil—that the land holds. The final scene, in which the mystery is ultimately resolved, is a magical blending of Native belief with Taylor’s fictional narrative. More than just superior to Twilight and novels of its ilk, The Night Wanderer is a fabulous blend of realism with the supernatural, both Native and Non.

Gifts (2004), by Ursula K. LeGuin

I was rather disappointed in Gifts.  The premise, while slightly reminiscent of Kristin Cashore’s Graceling (2007), is sufficiently original to deserve admiration, as is of course LeGuin’s ability as an exceptional story-teller and innovative social and scientific thinker.  But her 2004 Gifts does not elicit the powerful response I have come to expect from her writing.

The gifts possessed by the familial societies in her novel have led to unrelenting inter-tribal strife—tension if not outright conflict—which permeates the tone of the text.  The tone thus suggests that Gifts would be an interesting text to consider according to Popular Culture Theory tenets, but does not render it an enjoyable story. Of course, social conflict is a worthwhile and valid topic for fiction; what would we do without such texts as William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954) or George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945)?  But LeGuin seems to throw away the chance to create a powerful social message for—or emotional response from—the reader. While her character Gyr questions the historical use of their magical powers, pondering “maybe they’re backwards. Maybe they were used for curing people, to begin with” (230), and uses her power (to call creatures to her) only to train domestic animals, too little of the discussion surrounding gifts centres on their origins, justifications, or possible uses.

The plot, too, lumbers on… A lowlander is introduced in the opening pages, but then only reappears after 220 pages of flashback; even then he seems to serve no real purpose, although his presence seems the frame to the narrative we are following.  The only effect he has on the story is to tell the protagonists Orrec and Gry that they would find jobs should they leave the lands of their tribes and move down to the more civilized lowlands (where Orrec’s mother is originally from).  Perhaps better internal monologue from our narrator, Orrec, might have linked the lowlander’s arrival in the beginning with the conclusion of the novel. If he and Gry had been more explicitly concerned with their gifts, or portrayed a deeper interest in relations between the tribes, I may have been more invested in the story.  As it was, Orrec’s simple narration of both past and present were like reading a history book from a foreign land with which one has no connection, nor necessarily wants to.

Perhaps, though, I am being too harsh. My daughter immediately ordered the sequel to Gifts (Voices, 2006) from the library, and my more generous thought is that the Annals from the Western Shore series (culminating with Powers, 2007) is perhaps ideologically cohesive and convincing as a series. It is so unlike LeGuin to write without a purpose. I will persevere.

Novel finished 17 November 2011; review written 20 November 2011.