The Runaways (1997), by Kristin Butcher

It was surprisingly nostalgic to read Kristin Butcher’s The Runaways. The feeling grew on me slowly, undefined until a scene in the later part of the story when Nick, the protagonist, is trying to learn more about a favourite childhood author. Nick goes to the library, where he first checks newspaper reports, and then is pointed by the librarian to Who’s Who. It was at this point that I was compelled to check the publication date: 1997, when the Internet was in its infancy and not every middle-school student had a cell phone. The pre-digital narrative was refreshing, especially given Nick’s interest in investigative journalism, yet it caused me to wonder how middle-school readers today would respond to the story. Is this now a period piece? I’m hoping that young readers will not be put off by the unfamiliarity of earlier research techniques, because the story itself carries a message that is as strong and pertinent today as it was in 1997.

The scene opens on Nick running blindly, flat-out, escaping from a situation he finds unbearably painful: his mother and despised step-father are having a baby. Nick ends up spending the night in an abandoned house on the top of a hill over-looking his town. There, in the morning, he is found by Luther, a homeless man well-known in the community, whose “home” he has invaded. When the police come looking, Nick recognizes Luther’s need not to be found, and says nothing about their meeting. But the seeds of have been sown, and what begins as a curiosity about Luther develops into a more serious social interest in the lives of the homeless. Nick takes on the subject as a school research project and with the help of Cole, his step-father, investigates the real lives of people on the streets.

Cole is a journalist for the Andersonville newspaper and becomes Nick’s ally against maternal concerns about investigating the rougher side of town. Their shared interest gives Cole a platform upon which to build a meaningful relationship with his new step-son, and through their shared adventures, Nick begins to both understand and appreciate Cole’s new role in his life. In contrast to Cole’s active overtures towards Nick, Luther works to maintain an emotional distance, but his reticence runs up against Nick’s insatiable curiosity, tempered though it is by respect for Luther’s obvious intelligence.

The Runaways is very much about taking the time to really think about other people’s lives; it is about developing empathy, not only for people who are obviously “other” (Luther and the homeless community) but also for those closer to us, whose strengths we might not see clearly.

Winter Shadows (2010), by Margaret Buffie

Buffie-Winter Shadows

A perfect book to read right now, when shadows are lengthening so early in the day: the air is crisp, our hands thawed by warm breath that hangs in a cloud before dissipating. These days, I can easily imagine Beatrice, “huddled under a pile of buffalo robes” (1) as we first meet her. I have never lived in the prairies, being from the mountains of BC, but Buffie’s descriptions are so vivid that I can see Beatrice’s world, and Cassandra’s more modern version, and feel the difference between the two eras they lived in. I am not by nature adept at creating images from descriptive texts; I generally get a strong feeling for characters in books, but have a problem visualizing their settings. I recognize this as a failing in my role as reader, and am thus overjoyed when an author’s descriptions are effective enough for me to really see the world she creates.

Buffie’s setting carries her carefully designed plot along with it; her ability to intertwine her modern realist stories with the paranormal connections that are the vehicle for growth and learning does not seem to wane. As in her other stories, in Winter Shadows emotional support comes to Cassandra through discovering the truth of Beatrice’s life. Cass is facing the first Christmas with a new step-mother and annoying younger step-sister; she feels betrayed by her father, abandoned by her dead mother, righteous in her anger, and justified in her acting out. While we do not necessarily agree with her—from an adult perspective—we can see why she feels and does what she does… Teen readers would undoubtedly not only sympathize, but empathize with her position, her attitude, and her behaviour. Buffie contrasts Cass’s modern familial problems with those of a young Métis girl, Beatrice, in 1856. Beatrice has returned from school in the East to St. Cuthbert’s, Manitoba, to live with her father and his new wife, Ivy. Ivy, like Cass’s new stepmother, Jean, does not share a culture with her new husband. Beatrice calls her “puritanical” (20), and certainly she has no love of—let alone respect for—Native cultures, including Métis. Beatrice’s story is presented as a combination of conflicts: she suffers both as a daughter with a new step-mother, and as a Métis who loves her grandmother and her culture, yet sees it denigrated by many in her community, including her step-mother. Cass, living in her ancestral home that was also Beatrice’s, begins to see visions of Beatrice’s life, as Beatrice does of Cass. The connection between the two young women causes both of them to doubt not only their sanity, at some level, but also their instinctive emotional responses to their world. Learning of the cultural and social prejudices with which Beatrice suffers helps Cass to put her own problems into perspective; seeing visions of the comparatively strong and emancipated Cass helps Beatrice to stand strong in the choices she has to make.

Layered beneath her plot, Buffie has created a narrative of mid-nineteenth-century Métis culture that is part of a resurgence of and thus growing interest in the Métis historical narrative. Another admirable author in this vein is Jacqueline Guest, whose Belle of Batoche (2004) and Outcasts of River Falls (2012) are more straight-forward historical narratives of Canadian Métis life. I’m not sure if there are others, but these three novels speak strongly to the need for the Métis narrative to be told, to be reconstructed in a way that provides ready access for modern young readers. Winter Shadows, with its combination of carefully researched history and language, and Buffie’s as-always insightful interpretation of modern youth and the issues they face, is for me the perfect combination of reality and metaphor, modernity and paranormal history. While I do not love (understand? identify with? appreciate?) Cass as much as I do Frances Rain, I believe Cass speaks as strongly to young girls today as Frances Rain did almost 25 years ago.

Stuff: The Life of a Cool Demented Dude (2004), by Jeremy Strong

I first read—and taught—Stuff shortly after it came out. My strongest memory of the reading experience is travelling up to Simon Fraser University on public transit, with the cover of the very obviously young novel displayed to the world, unable to keep myself from laughing aloud. Slightly embarrassing, given the artwork. I can’t remember now what it was—Pankhurst, the “radical feminist rabbit” (39); the “hearty farty” knickers (13); the adventures of Punykid—but regardless, I found it one of the funniest novels I had read in a long, long time. When the American ARC came into my hands a couple of years later, I was struck by the level of my disappointment in the cover art. I have since read through the American edition, complete with drawings, and been equally disappointed, as have students at both the elementary and the university level. Seb Burnett’s quirky illustrations in the British edition suit Jeremy Strong’s intelligent but ribald humour to a T; Matthew Armstrong’s have a much more “American manga” look to them, as if they are trying just that bit too hard to be cool. This does not do justice to Strong’s obvious intent, for—despite the novel’s subtitle—it is the geeky misfits who will recognize themselves in and take heart from Simon and Pete’s escapades.

Simon is “a fund of information, which is why everyone at school calls [him] Stuff. [He’s] full of it” (8): and very liberal he is with his information, too. Stuff is hilariously irreverent: intelligent yet immature, annoying to the adults around him yet completely comprehensible when we see the world through his eyes. His story is a combination of narrative, comic, and encyclopædic digressions that weave—or maybe lump—together to form a cohesive whole that only Simon and Pete, his best friend, can ever hope to understand. When a substitute teacher reveals the story of Samuel Johnson’s refutation of Berkeley, the boys go about kicking rocks… and lockers… and each other… and “nobody else had a clue what [they] were on about” (54): “how life goes” (93) for teenaged boys. Of course, readers are privy to the strange convolutions of Stuff’s inmost thoughts, so we are privileged in our ability to follow. This becomes especially empowering when the tangential stories Stuff tells us—for example, his “Frog Experience” (8-9) or his “Short Note About Cuckoos” (92)—appear as random elements in the comic strip he is anonymously writing for his art teacher’s school magazine (and thesis project). The five episodes of “Punykid’s Battle with the Drooling Dorkoids” interspersed throughout Stuff’s narrative are both an entertaining graphic representation of the story as we have it so far and a cathartic experience for Stuff, who excises his teenage angst through his art, creating a world in which he might—if Skysurfer can save Punykid in time—just get the girl.  What to readers in Stuff’s school appear as random narrative or graphic elements, readers of the novel recognize as important aspects of Stuff’s teenage reality. The art teacher asks, “Whose that tubby little man who keeps kicking things?” (180), and we know the answer.

Between the laughter and the energy inspired by engaging with Stuff’s witty yet disconnected ideas, readers will find Stuff not only hilarious but exhilarating; I couldn’t put it down.

Who Is Frances Rain? (1987), by Margaret Buffie

What is it about Lizzie? Why, out of all of the marvellous protagonists that YA literature contains, does Lizzie captivate me? Every time I read Who is Frances Rain?—and this is the fourth time—I want to know more of Lizzie’s story: I want to see how her final years of highschool progress; I want to know (despite statistics regarding the permanency of highschool romances) more about her relationship with Alex; I want to follow her on the rocky road that the next few years will be. For, once again, Margaret Buffie has created a novel in which there are no solid answers in the end, only hope and promise. Her characters are so real, in both their flaws and their strengths that we implicitly trust in the truth of the narrative, and I at least want to travel with the characters for quite a while longer.

The plot of the novel is fairly simple. Lizzie’s dad has left them, which is difficult for the whole family, but especially for her annoying older brother, Evan. Her mother has recently remarried, and Lizzie and Evan both actively reject Tim, the new husband, and his legitimate attempts to both fit in to and help the family. Here, Buffie’s ability at characterization shines, for Lizzie, Evan, and Tim are all presented in honest human terms: no sugar coating to Evan’s rudeness or Lizzie’s self-centred attempts to sabotage Tim’s positive contributions. Eventually, not surprisingly, Tim can take no more and leaves. This is not a spoiler; it is the guaranteed outcome of the narrative situation Buffie constructs so deftly. But while it is the basic premise of the plot, it is also not the central point. Lizzie’s relationships with Tim—and Evan, and her mother—are a vehicle for the novel’s message that family—and indeed community—does not function unless there is communication, understanding, and forgiveness amongst its members. This is a lesson that Lizzie must learn, and she does so not only through her experiences—both contemporary and paranormal—but also through the pointed jibes of those around her who have had quite enough of her selfishness. At one point, Alex, who has been her brother’s summer friend since childhood, tells her: “You’re running a close neck-and-neck race with Evan for pill of the year, I don’t know why I bother with you” (114). Sometimes we need to hear comments like this; they pull us out of our more self-indulgent emotional moments.

While all of the clues to help her develop a more balance perspective on her family and her own role within it are present in her contemporary world, what really feeds Lizzie’s budding empathy is her experience on Rain Island, where she meets the ghost of Frances Rain. Who is Frances Rain? is more than just an interesting approach to the time-slip novel; Lizzie’s experience of the past crosses the borders of believability in a way that most time-slip novels remain pure fantasy. What she learns through helping Frances Rain’s ghost teaches Lizzie a lot about personal strength and responsibility; by helping Frances Rain find peace, she helps herself understand the difference in degree between her own troubles and those of the adults around her.

Who is Frances Rain? has been challenged and banned a number of times, for its inclusion of both the paranormal and an unwed mother. The illegitimate child in Buffie’s book is born in the early years of the twentieth century, but more than suggesting that such happenings belong in the past and our society has improved since then (a trope that was common in the first six decades of the twentieth century), Buffie is providing a continuity between women of the past and young women such as Lizzie, who are learning to make their own way in our modern world. The physical and emotional fortitude Frances Rain presents is a strength that both Lizzie and the reader can draw on in their own lives: Frances Rain is a part of Lizzie’s past, and shows Lizzie a way to move forward into her future. Perhaps that is why I want Lizzie’s story to go on: I want to be part of her continuing to grow into the strong, self-sufficient woman who was Frances Rain