Archive for May, 2009

Lawson, Julie.  The Ghost of Avalanche Mountain. Toronto and New York: Stoddard Kids, 2000.

–  –  -.   Destination Gold! Victoria: Orca, 2000.

In an article published a few years ago in CCL/LCJ, I wrote about two other novels by Julie Lawson, author of White Jade Tiger, discussed in the last entry.  Now I’d like to go back to what I said then, and see if I can learn anything by comparing the three novels with each other.  the essay, “Of Solitudes and Borders: Double-Focalized Canadian Books for Children,” can be found here.

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In both The Ghost of Avalanche Mountain and Destination Gold! the plot alternates between events as experienced by different characters.  In Ghost, the focalizing characters are the ghost of a boy who died in an avalanche decades ago and a girl of today who wears the goldstone he wants to reclaim (with one passage focalized through the girl’s Australian aunt and one through a boy, Raven, who is her friend).  In Destination Gold, the focalizing characters are a boy, his sister, and another girl caught up in the Klondike gold rush.  For a long time in both books, the key characters remain physically separate from each other and experience quite different events without knowledge of what is happening to the others.  Thus, it’s a major point of the plot of Destination that a letter Ned writes does not reach his family, so that he and his sister Sarah don’t know where each other are, and for much of the novel, Ned and Sarah and the other girl, Catharine, are not even aware of each other’s existence.  In Ghost, meanwhile, the living Ashley and the ghost Jonathan are aware of but unable to understand each other’s life and needs until their first (and last) conversation at the novel’s climax.
But while the characters remain isolated in their separate stories, their intertwining narratives offer readers insight into their connections with each other.  Indeed, readers are able to understand what remains mysterious or confusing to the characters–and also, what their connections to each other are–as answers to questions raised by one narrative of appear in the others’ narratives.  In Destination, for instance, readers know as Ned doesn’t that his letter has never arrived–and when Ned overhears a conversation about the girl his supposed friend Montana won in a game of cards, readers will understand from earlier narratives of Catherine’s that she is in fact that girl–that there is a connection between Ned and Catharine through Montana neither will be aware of for many pages to come.

Furthermore, since readers already know from Catharine’s earlier narrative about Montana’s vicious treatment of her and her horror of him, they can understand how foolish Ned is to trust him.  In Ghost, similarly, readers can understand from Jonathan’s narrative who he is and why he is doing what he does to Ashley long before Ashley herself does–and similarly, readers know what Jonathan can’t figure out–that the raven who he knows will lead him to his prize is not a bird but a boy of that name.

In both novels, then, readers know more than the characters do, and can read their situations in ways the characters themselves cannot understand.  This creates suspense: readers can wonder when characters will realize what the readers already know, and meanwhile, enjoy worrying about what the characters’ ignorance will lead them into.
The way the different focalized charters occupy different story spaces raises the question of the degree to which the novels might be about difference.   In Robyn McCallum’s terms, do they suggest “a dialogue between two social, cultural, gendered or historical positions”?  Are they examples of what W.H. New calls “boundary rhetoric” and identfies as a feature of writing by Canadians?

The novels certainly do focus on contrasts between their characters.  The characters in Destination Gold are an optimistic male with a vision of a glorious future who trusts others too much, a pessimistic independent female fleeing an awful past who must learn to trust others more, and an uncertain dependent female who neither flees the past nor seeks the future and who must learn to be more independent and trust herself.    In Ghost, the two key characters are opposite in almost every way: they are male and female, ghost and human, orphan and possessor of a happy family, isolated from others and highly connected to them, illiterate and knowledgeable.

These differences are well worth exploring.  But before I do so, I need to repeat what I suggested earlier–that these contrasts don’t seem in any obvious way to highlight “social, cultural, gendered or historical positions.”   That these characters are rich or poor, male or female does not seem to me to engender any obvious, intentional consideration of the ways in which their gender or class influences their fate–as does in fact happen in other double-focalized novels– in, for instance, Diana Wieler’s Bad Boy or Welywn Katz’s False Face, which clearly strive to make readers think about gender and race.  There’s no doubt that a careful reading of Lawson’s novels would reveal much about ideological assumptions, but the novels themselves never obviously focus on them.  They take it for granted that the contrasts between their characters have more to do with personality and individual destiny than ideology or history.

They are, nevertheless, about difference and moving beyond difference.  The plots of both novels work most significantly to bring the characters together–not just to bring them physically together and into an awareness of each other they first lacked, but also, in doing so, to offer each other what they emotionally lacked, so that isolated people achieve connection, dependent people achieve self-governance, and so on.  The characters in both novels achieve happy endings by moving from isolation in their separate stories to participation in the one story they all share.
But in fact, not quite all.  In Destination Gold, the happy ending the central characters share is happy specifically because the villain, Montana, has been defeated and left town. Before then, the story has centered around questions of property and ownership–of supplies for the journey to the Klondike and of the claims staked after the characters get there.  Every potentially valuable possession passes through Montana’s hand, gained through deceit and trickery–but ends up happily in the possession of the characters who share the single story of the book’s conclusion.  Apparently, one can have or share ownership in the place one chooses to live in only by not being self-seeking–by displaying a willingness to share it.

Ghost focuses even more centrally on questions of property–in this case, the goldstone, which both the ghost Jonathan and the girl Ashley have claims to.  Ashley has received it as a family heirloom from her aunt.  Jonathan was present at its making, as lightning struck his grandfather while he made the stone, and has pledged to bring it back both to his grandfather and to the spirits of the mountain, whom he believes are angered by its loss.  The story ends as Ashley, buried under an avalanche caused by Jonathan and near a death that will pull her into Jonathan’s ghostly world, willingly gives up the goldstone to Jonathan, in return for reconnecting him to the rest of humanity by putting his name, previously unknown, on his gravestone.  Once more, sharing leads to connection with others–although this time, not to ownership; Ashley concludes that the goldstone “was where it belonged, where Jonathan wanted it to be.  In the snow, in the mountains, in the shadow of the glacier” (230).  The goldstone then acts as a symbol of what separates–what keeps Jonathan isolated in his half-world and connected neither to living humans nor his dead grandfather, what separates Ashley from her friends (after she accuses one of them of stealing the goldstone).
Furthermore, that separating something has much to do with the “spirits” of the mountain–the forces of nature itself, the dangerous but compelling landscape that dwarfs humans and that they need to protect themselves from in their contacts with each other.  It’s instructive that this novel also contains the story of Ashley’s friend Raven, a member of a family that falls apart who then acts in an anti-social way and defiantly leaves the communal group on a field trip in the mountains to head off on his own, an act which leads to Ashley’s near-death.  In his story as in Ashley’s and Jonathan’s, isolation leads to identification with and destruction by the vast forces of nature: like Ashley and in a different way, like Jonathan, Raven must be, and is, restored to the community, in order to be protected from the dangerous spirits that inhabit and express the essence of the natural landscape.

All of this reminds me of Earle Birney’s poem “Bushed,” in which a settler finds that the mountain he settles under is “clearly alive”:

then he knew    though the mountain slept     the winds
were shaping its peak into an arrowhead
poised

And now he could only
bar himself in and wait
for the great flint to come singing into his heart

“The great flint’ of lightning does come singing from the mountain spirits into Jonathan’s grandfather, and thus creates the goldstone that dangerously isolates individuals from their communities  “Bushed” is often cited in discussions of what Northrop Frye called “the garrison mentality”: the idea that Canadians so fear and feel dwarfed by the vast natural landscape surrounding them than they retreat behind the walls of their communities and there huddle together for safety.  Now considered to be outdated as a way of accounting for adult Canadian literature, the garrison mentality seems alive and well in Ghost of Avalanche Mountain.  The isolation of characters from each other that double focalization almost inevitably emphasizes works to support and help express support for a traditionally Canadian garrison mentality–the need to constrain individual desire in order to gain the safety of a community, and at the same time, the happy ending of a shared story.

In the light of the home-and-away pattern so central to children’s fiction, that’s not so surprising: children’s stories often send young protagonists off into the dangerous wilds in order to learn the need for the safety of home.  What’s interesting, I think, is the ways in which that pattern develops a distinctly Canadian resonance in the light of Frye’s garrison mentality–so that aspects of texts which might mean something less nuanced in another context do imply specifically Canadian meanings in the Canadian context.

The skepticism with which contemporary scholars view Frye’s garrison theories might cast doubt on that conclusion.  The theory certainly works less well for recent Canadian writing for adults than it does as a way of approaching earlier Canadian texts–ones written by immigrants new to the Canadian landscape–a landscape itself less urban and less controlled by humans than it has since become.  Why then might Frye’s theory operate as a context for contemporary writing for younger Canadians?  It might be, simply, that adults who write for children conceive of childhood and adolescence as something like being an immigrant–a stranger in a unsettlingly strange land.  But that does not account for the surprising frequency with which Canadian novels for young people move their characters from urban settings to rural ones, cottages or country houses or forests or wilds, where they face forces larger than themselves.  It seems like an especially Canadian way to figure a theme conventional in children’s literature internationally.

In this way as in others, I’d argue, Canadian children’s literature seems to represent a particularly intense version of the characteristic generic markers of children’s literature as a whole.  Just as Canadian thinking seems immersed in boundary rhetoric, so is children’s literature. It is literature written across a border–by adults but for children perceived as different enough from the adults who write for them to need to be written for differently.  It almost always therefore deals with contrasts, conflicts, and negotiations between the adult and the childlike (here in these books, the family and the wild).  In its inherent doubleness, children’s literature offers a paradigm for understanding the Canadian situation as imagined by Canadians in many different ways.  If Canadian children’s literature is a particularly intense version of these matters, then the presence of so many double-focalized texts within it may not then be so surprising

__________________

So what about all this in relation to White Jade Tiger?  My earlier thoughts on the other novels centred on what might be specifically Canadian about Lawson’s books–and I can see how I might think about White Jade Tiger that way also (although this time, in terms of Canadian ideas about multiculturalism and how they work to defang different cultures of their difference, etc.).  It’s also intriguing that both White Jade Tiger and Ghost of avalanche Mountain are about connections between past and present, involve a contemporary girl laying old ghosts to rest (male ghosts, in both caess), and center around possession of a specific object that represents a significant history and needs to be returned to its rightful hiding place as the present lays to rest the sins of the past.   And the past is laid to rest in terms of being brought to light and properly remembered–and thus rendered effectively both honored and made inoperative in terms of still affecting the present.   It’s put in its proper place.

Lawson, Julie.  White Jade Tiger.  1993.  Toronto: Sandcastle Dundurn, 2006.

The text is a traditional third person past narrative, usually focalized through the central character, Jasmine, but frequently interspersing sections involving not only Keung, a Chinese boy who comes to BC to find his father in the nineteenth century but also other Chinese characters connected to Keung, such as his ancestress Bright Jade, and ones describing the spirit of white jade tiger of the title–a piece of jade in the shape of a tiger, but representing something larger than that–the fortune of a village and a family, ruined because the white jade tiger has been stolen form its required resitng place.  Most of these sections are separate, but there are a few places here and there where the focalization shifts from Jasmine to Keung within a section.

The novel operate in the tradition of time-slip fantasy: after putting on an old Chinese coolie outfit and visiting Victoria’s Chinatown, Jasmine finds herself back in Keung’s time, helping him to find his father, whose possession of the piece of jade has doomed his family to bad luck, and return him and it to China.  At the end, it turns out that the bad luck that doomed Keung’s family because of the jade has extended to Jasmine herself, who thought she was all white but turns out to have had a Chinese great-great grandfather–Keung himself.  At the end, then, she heads off to China to see her father, a professor there, and will return the jade and end the curse that earlier in the novel, it seems, killed her mother.  She will be her own saviour–as the novel implies in its use of spirits of the past, etc., she was always fated to be..

Like just about all time-slip books, this one allows two young people to meet across time in order for them to help each other in bad situations.  Here, Jasmine helps Keung find his father and learn the possibility of a kind, humane white person–which, it seems to suggest, leads to his settling in BC and marrying a white woman and thus leading to Jasmine’s own existence (there’s the unsettling sense that Jasmine and her ancestor feel attracted to each other in a way that eventually leads to her own birth).   So Jasmine brings her current tolerant attitudes to the past and teaches them to Keung.  Meanwhile, Jasmine, who wants to control everything and who hasn’t managed to control the accident that led to her mother’s death, gets healing from her adventure in the past–and concern for and even love for a boy, and as a result of all that, finally, an end to the family curse.  The past helps the present by providing an opportunity to right wrongs, the present heals the past, by being wiser, and readers see it happen through alternating eyes in a way that confirms their actual lack of isolation from each other: because we know both and see as both see, we are already aware of the connection unknown to the two characters before they realize it.  We are outside and above time in a situation which laways implies that time is illusory or its apparent limitations conquerable.

There is, nevertheless, something strange and a little creepy going on here.–not just because of the incestuous overtones of the feelings not asserted but implied between Jasmine and Keung, but that those feelings lead to her coming into existence, and her coming into existence then guaranteeing an end to an ages-long curse–as if she has somehow ended up engineering her own existence and controlled the existence of others, as if she is a sort of divine being resident over her own fate (there are places where Keung confuses her with the ancestor spirit Bright Jade, now also more than just a mere human, and also a controlling spirit in the book).  There something of an ultimate wish-fulfilling egocentricity here–the girl who wanted control ends up in control of just about everything, and fixes up everything all by her little self, and by being such a contemporary kind of liberal, tolerant, evolved self.

And then, that all gets mixed up with issues of race–and of claiming.  Jasmine, the nice normal suburban white girl, is the ideal young Canadian of her time–without a glimmer of prejudice against people of another culture.  indeed, she adores Chinatown, adores Chinese food–eats it with pleasure in the past when she finds white man’s food almost inedible.   But the basis of all that tolerance for difference in thrown into question when it turns out she’s actually in part Chinese already.  So she is discovering a forgotten past, that makes her one with the other, and not someone representing a tolerance for otherness–she was always already Chinese, as a post-modernist might say.  Her claim on Chines culture is her own previously unknown Chinese-ness.  This weirdly parallels the way a lot of novels for young people about whites and aboriginal children solves problems of difference or discrimination by allowing the white children to think of themselves and of all good people as ones who share aboriginal values.  In becoming “aboriginal,” they are meant to represent fellow-feeling, universal humanity; but in doing so they deprive actual aboriginals of any specific claim to, say, land, or the past, etc.: it belongs to all the universal aboriginals, not just to genetic Indians.  So, too, here, I think, except there is an blood claim made, one that then implies that the only real tolerance can be for someone like yourself, a group you are already part of.  Jasmine, it weirdly seems yo imply, can actually be part Chinese because she is in fact a tolerant representative of universal contemporary humanity–already one with all forms of humainty.  All of which is to say: for all its celebration of Chinese culture and horrors at the treatment of the Chinese men who built the railways, there’s something here that makes me unnecessarily uncomfortable.

I’ve found a review of Life is Funny, discussed in my last post, that I wrote back when the book was pubished in 200.  It takes quite on different slant on some of the same aspects of the novel:

Life Is Funny is about as shapeless a novel as they come. It has eleven main characters, most of them students at the same New York City high school. Each chapter is a monologue in which one of these young people tells about, or perhaps merely thinks about, events in his or her life, in a voice unlike all the others. Only two characters get more than one chapter, and while some of the characters figure as major or minor players in the stories of others, some don’t. As well as shifting from character to character, the book moves from time to time, over a period of seven years, so that the events described are distant from each other even when, occasionally, they happen to the same people.

What holds these diverse fragments together? Technically speaking, a little too much. Unconnected characters just happen to visit the Statue of Liberty at the same time or end up on the same farm miles from their New York neighborhood. But despite these coincidences, Life Is Funny successfully conveys a sense of the confusion and incoherence of being alive. Life’s essential shapelessness is exactly what the novel is about.

In exploring the bewildering business of being alive, E. R. Frank provides her young protagonists with an environment filled with condoms, strong language, and bloodshed, and with an amazing assortment of problems. Here are just some of them: interracial tensions, disloyal friends, friends in trouble, friends who commit suicide, being bullied, being a bully, repressive parents, parents who are mentally or physically abusive (or both), absent parents, foster parents, fathers or brothers who are sexually abusive, sexual confusion, virginity, lack of virginity, pregnancy (both one’s mother’s and one’s own), termination of pregnancy, self-afflicted violence, bed-wetting, poverty, shoplifting. Not to mention bad hair days.  As described in Life Is Funny, life seems to be anything but.

Nevertheless, Frank insists, it is. The novel’s title emerges from the mouth of Gingerbread, the adopted son of an interracial couple, a strangely round-faced boy who suffers from attention deficit disorder initiated when he was born addicted to crack. His girlfriend, Keisha, says, “I asked why he laughed so much, and he said, like it ought to be plain as day, Because life is funny, and maybe that’s when I for real started to fall in love.” Gingerbread voices the principles by which just about all these characters live and which the novel is clearly recommending: being able to respond positively, with joy and with a great deal of resilience, to the confusion and incoherence that are part of being human. Some readers might be surprised that Frank specifically allows her characters the joy of sex–a commitment to bodily pleasure rare in books for young people.

Frank tends, perhaps, to make things a little too easy, focusing on stories that end happily toward the conclusion of the book in order to create an argument for optimism in the face of trouble. But Life Is Funny remains an enjoyable novel for young adults, imaginatively and honestly conceived, intricately plotted, and energetically written.

This appeared in The Riverbank Review.  I seem to have become more cynical since then.

Frank, E.R.  Life is Funny.  New York: Dorling Kindersley, 2000.

This is another example of a series of fairly separate short stories each focalized from a different first-person present point of view and woven together into what announces itself as a novel–although how exactly it becomes one, how it has any actual cohesiveness, is not necessarily all that easy to figure out.  The eleven main characters, each the first person narrator of events as they currently happen to him/her,  are all, somehow connected, but usually quite tenuously–not in a any way that easily identifies them as a specific community.  Some are each other’s best friends, some live next door to each other or got to the same school, some merely pass each other on the street from a distance and are barely aware of each other’s names.  It all appears to centre on the same neighbourhood in Brooklyn, but some of the characters with connections there then end up connected to others who live in different places who become focalizing characters–so there’s really nothing holding them altogether except the fact of their one-to-one connections with each other, in a sort of rhizomatic set of joins that eventually does connect them all.

Furthermore, the novel covers seven years–two narratives for each of the first six, one for the seventh–and so the characters are over a range of ages and face the problems that typically (or normatively) occur over the whole range of teenage years and a little before and a little beyond, and some ar always much older or younger than others  And only two of the characters have more than one narrative, both of those repeating in the section labelled as being the sixth year.  so the overall effect is of a totally non-cohesive group who are nevertheless connected–albeit very loosely.  It’s a challenge to think about how they might all come together to form a cohesive novel.

And in a real sense, they don’t.  Each of their stories is different, and the connection between them seems at least superficially to have more to do with random happenstance than with any thematic connection or significance.  But then, because they are different and have their difference from each other in common, that almost seems to become the point, at least for a reader in a position to observe their shared lack of similarity.

Each of the characters copes with a different but relatively common problem of adolescence–and almost all of them have some kind of problem with parents.  So for all the difference in their specific problems and situations (some are well off, some very poor, some white, some black, some of other racial backgrounds, etc.)  all are equally beset by a problematic world and insufficient parenting (insufficient in different ways in each case, but always insufficient).  Their different situations and problems then develop a variational relationship, all varying around the theme of bad parenting and coping with that and other problems involving especially sex and money. The book becomes like a catalogue of adolescent angst and woe, as the wide range of problems that appear alone and front and centre in other YA books all appear here together in one place where their appearing together reveals a set of similarities underlying their apparent difference from each other.  Whether your father beats your mother or your mother is an addict, parents tend to be quite untrustworthy and often dangerous.  (Indeed, the only helpful adults throughout the book turn out to be understanding teachers or adoptive parents, not natural ones, and the children often need to support and in effect parent their parents or each other). Then, whether you have an attention disorder or an urge to cut yourself, you need to finds ways of coping and moving beyond it that have a lot to do with a faith in yourself and a trust in the right others–like friends and non-related professional adults.

In the light of the inevitable comparisons of these apparently differing situations, the focus moves away from the specifics of each problem and onto a more general sort of philosophy of how best to deal with any and all problems–who to be, how to feel about life in general, who to trust, etc.  It all tends towards a kind of rhetoric implied by its title–“life is funny”–how best to cope with or think about Life with a capital L.  And the fact that eleven different people are caught in the act of thinking about their differing situations in similar ways encourages attention to that sort of concern.

Except for creating that sort of focus, though, I’m not sure i understand why all the connections between the separate characters–some of them dependent on some pretty far-fetched coincidences–like differing apparently unconnected characters showing up at the Statue of Liberty at the same time.  The connections are not in any obvious way part of why life is funny, or what we readers are invited to be thinking about life generally?  There’s no obvious rhetoric about a human family, e.g., or brothers under the skin, or anything like that–although that’s certainly implied in terms of the similar responses to the different situations by the different characters.

Another result of the comparative thinking encouraged by the presence of so many apparently unrelated focalizing characters is, since they clearly are  intended to represent a spectrum of possibilities, they draw attention to missing parts of a complete spectrum.  Two things caught my eye here.  First, as far as I can tell, and for all the attention being paid to the possibilities of being sexually abused by relatives or the possibilities of enjoying or using sex amongst peers, there doesn’t seem to be a gay character here, neither as an adult or as a child.  If there is one, he or she hasn’t yet come out even to him or herself.  Second, for all the horror of these damaged lives, the book is amazingly and astonishingly upbeat.  for all the inadequacy of their parents, these young people are all amazingly together.  Even the ones who seem most damaged are still sane and even happy somehow, deep inside, in ways that gradually reveal themselves to themselves and to readers.  No one is especially vicious or deranged by the viciousness and derangement of their surroundings.  They retain a weird innocence, a vision of what I might like to identify as a middle class ideal of blissful childhood that triumphs over all the negative forces surrounding them.  You have to wonder why the parents of all these ever-so-resilient young people were so easily defeated when they are so strong and self-reliant or empathetic with each other.  As if by magic, they all survive and triumph over their bad upbringing, and even when they do have problems or fall into bad times, they manage to keep that light shining inside.  In the light of its vast catalogue of woes, it’s an outrageously optimistic book, and for all the victimization, they are no actual victims–only apparent victims who haven’t met the right saviours yet.  Very strange–and yet that seems to be the point here.  The character Gingerbread, who actually says that life is funny, is the resident philosopher king of all this, a spirit of joy that triumphs over all odds and thus represents the best way to be, with no sense of the fact that life really is tough and that people really do often fail at it or are failed by it.

Foon, Dennis. Skud.  Toronto Groundwood, 2003.

Four boys who attend the same high school all face problems relating to their understanding of what it means to be masculine.  As a result, at least three things happen in the course of their alternations, as each speaks of what is happening to himself in first person in the present tense.–or, I suppose, thinks, for no audience is apparent: it’s that strange sense of a person naming each of his actions as he experiences them.

First: each of the boys has a separate problem, but all the problems are related to each other in being about manhood.  So there’s a sense of the novel as “case studies,” as each of the boys seems to represent one kind of problem related to being male, and so readers get a spectrum of key instances of the problems boys have with their masculinity.  Tommy, a military cadet, has invested everything on control, in masculinity as sacrifice and discipline and being the ideal man–the perfect hero, the perfect student, the good citizen–a representative of what my handout in the last entry identifies as “warrior masculinity.”  Brad, a hockey player, has taken what appears to be the opposite approach–he is the male as violent competitor, uncontrolled and predatory when he is at his best–a representative of “phallic masculinity.”  Andy, in counterpoint to these two examples of culturally acceptable masculinity, is a would-be actor with little sense of why he might try to achieve an ideal of maleness–but he is up for a part requiring him to act like a dangerous street kid, and so trying to understand what it would mean to be male in that way–so he;s sort of a representative of a male not yet masculinzed and looking for a male image.   And Shane, a fourth focalizer who appears a lot less frequently than the other three,  is an actual gang member understand as dangerously male by the others, but actually suffering from the way in which others perceptions of his dangerousness has led to the loss of his murdered brother and made him a strong representative of what’s wrong with normative assumptions about competitive masculinity.  Separately, each boy follows a path that reveals something critical about one standard way of being male.  Together, they offer a spectrum of  examples in an overall critique of conventional assumptions about masculinity.  (A similar use of alternating narratives about characters representing different versions of the same central problem as case studies can be found in Alex Sanchez’ Rainbow Boys, in which the three alternating focalizers represent differing attitudes to an awareness of one’s gayness.

Second: since all the narrators are thinking about what it means to be male or act male, their stories have intriguing variational relationships with each other.  Both Tommy and Brad are in situations where their ideas about how they might ideally be male get them into serious trouble–in evocatively similar (yet different) ways.  Tommy wants to escape the turmoil of his quarrelling and separated parents and violent mother by imagining a purer world, flying above it all–he wants to be a pilot.  And he sees his relationship with a girl as pure and spiritual, and so jealously destroys the relationship when he sees his girl act a love scene with Andy and imagines she’s cheating on him–and then, after she dumps him, as all the violent emotion he has pent up emerges, attacks and rapes her.   Meanwhile, his best friend Brad,  trained by his wildly competitive farther to be the violent attacker and then dumped down to the fourth line on the hockey team after violence goes out of favour, also ends up attacking a girl–thus one the brilliant skater who has replaced him as star of the team.  But Brad, comfortable with his violence, acts in what appears to be a cool and rational manner as he plots out his revenge–and also, incites Tom into the jealous rage that destroys him.  So one boy is controlled but explosive, the others exploding and controlled in his use of his own explosiveness–they are opposite but two sides of the same coin, and follow a similar trajectory.  Both also dwell on how what they are inside is different form how people imagine them–how they play out their forms of maleness for others.  Andy’s story then becomes a variation on theirs, as he literally tries to figure out how to put on a mask of masculinity.  And Shane is the ultimate counterpoint, the one already so damaged by his masculine image that he sees himself as consumed by it and empty inside, and is actively moving against it in the only way he knows how–which, eventually, turns out to be violence against himself.  Meanwhile, the two pairs of boys, Tommy and Brad and Andy and Shane, represent two opposing stories of male bonding, as one friendship ends due to conventional masculinity gone awry and another begins to from, before it ends tragically, with retreats from conventional masculinity.

Third:  I become aware of all that as variational only because I can know all the stories rather than what each of the characters knows–which is just one of them each, his own.     So the alternations allow me a detached ability to observe them all, and to make the comparison that make me aware of their thematic relationships as well as the actual encounters they have with each other and know about themselves.  I know more about the meanings of their actions than they ever do.  I can see how all represent not just differing but related forms of maleness but also, differing acts of observation and surveillance, different but similar problems with difficult parents, different but related secrets, and so on.  The alternating narratives give a reader tools for knowing more and learning more than the characters ever do–and potentially, for coming to share a greater knowledge of what it all means that the authors has carefully planted the seeds of even though there  is nothing in the novel that isn’t from inside the limited view of one of the characters.

The author, Dennis Foon, is a Canadian best known as a playwright for young adults.  The novel, he says in a note at the end involves characters from an earlier play called War, and has many theatre-like effects–first person present action, for instance, and a sense that the characters are naming their thoughts as characters in plays sometimes do in soliloquies.  And the sense created for readers of being an outside observer noting behaviour and thinking about it in order to develop an understand of it beyond that possessed by the characters is something that theatre often works to achieve for its audiences also.

“Skud,” incidentally is a word used in the novel where the wrod “shit” would more usually appear in real teen languag, as in “She suspects me of an impure heart.  She’s full of skud,”  or just plain.  “Skud.  She knows.”

Some of the novels I’ve been looking at lately, and plan to do some thinking about in entries here, revolve around ways in which their male characters think about their maleness and what it might mean or ought to be. For that reason, I thought I’d better post here a handout I prepared some years back for students in classes discussing these kinds of issues.  Developed from class discussions, it simply lists a variety of ways in which people commonly understand what it means to be masculine.

Phallic masculinity

“Natural”—authentic, inherent, biological
Essential, fixed—there are no degrees of masculinity; one is either male or female
Dominance, authority, power; being on top
Hard, not soft
Phallic; penetrating, not penetrated
Thrusting, aggressiveness
Explosive, uncontrollable (“boys will be boys”)
“Size matters”; the bigger, the more masculine
Irresistible to women
Being Active
Enjoyment of physical activity (sports, etc.)
Enjoyment of the chase, etc.
Go-getting
Enjoyment of violence
Sadistic, not masochistic
Lust-driven; “brains in crotch”
Lustful but not seeking emotional attachment; sex but not love
Desiring (i.e., as opposed to desired); lustful, but not inviting lust
Seducer, not seductive
Polygamous

Warrior masculinity

Competitiveness
Need to test courage, power (“Are you a man or a mouse?”)
Need to win; be better than others
Need to be seen to win: glory, acclaim, reputation, etc.: masculinity as a prize awarded by the opinions of others, especially other men
Maleness as continually in question, always in need of being proved, tested, etc.
Strong and silent
Hard, cool, unemotional
Egocentric: self-sustaining
Unwilling to speak of emotions
No crying
Bragging; voicing of maleness as key feature of masculinity
Courage, bravery, fortitude
Self-control
Control and discipline of body:  not subject to desire
Control and discipline of body: ongoing achievement and maintenance of societally privileged appearance of masculinity
Invincibility; no pain
Meat; no quiche

Self-sufficient masculinity

Independence
Egocentricity
Outsider anti-conformist rebelliousness
Impatience with or defiance of limitations of convention, values of law and order, female rules of etiquette, good manners, taste, etc.; maleness as that which is restrained or repressed by civilization and social concerns
Not interested in neatness, cleanliness, order; no housecleaning
Fear of entrapment, containment
Non-romantic, non-needy (“Big boys don’t cry.”)
Non-nurturing

Group masculinity

Male bonding
Male homosociality: most important relationships are with other men
Misogyny
Homophobia; fear or repugnance at physical contact with other men outside of the context of battle or play-battle (sports); fear of the male gaze (homosociality as not homosexuality)
Need to conform to values of male group
Need of ritual reinforcement of involvement with male group — names, ceremonies, secret handshakes, etc.
Desire of the male gaze—attracting admiration of other men (e.g., body builders, models) for masculine appearance
Policing of unmanliness, etc.; category maintenance
Rigid, conservative, anti-anarchy or -transgression or confusion of fixed boundaries and categories
Closeting of divergence from group values, vulnerability, softness, etc.
Anti-intellectual (anti-geek, nerd, etc.)
Masculinity as a form of dress: certain colours, styles, forms of appearance, etc.; no frills, no pink, baseball caps, hairy and/or muscular, not pudgy or skinny, etc.  Body-building.
Lack of interest in fashion or appearance; no makeup
Peacockery

Structural/ cultural  masculinity

Patriarchal
Hierarchical
Binary oppositional: “us vs. them”)
Colonizing
Keeper of secrets about rules being broken, etc.; seeing but not saying

Psychoanalytical masculinity

Oedipal concerns
Repressed polymorphous perversity, anality, homosexuality, etc.
Fear of and/or integration of anima
“He who bears the phallus”; phallus as signifier; “name of the father”
Fear of father, murder of father, etc.; masculinity as tied up in relationships with fathers
Gazer—not subject to the gaze

Powers, J.L.  The Confessional.  New York: Knopf, 2007.

The El Paso Chamber of Commerce must have hit men out gunning for J.L. Powers, the author of this book–or if not, they should have.  It makes life in that city sound completely hellish (and indeed, confirms my own impression of it from a brief stay at a conference a few years ago–at one point, some of the characters even replicated my half-hour trip across the bridge into Juarez in order to be able to say I’ve been in Mexico, and describes exactly the horrific sense of poverty and despair I quickly turned around and fled back to the relative order of El Paso from).  If these characters are to be trusted, residents of El Paso live immersed in the confusions and miseries of life on the border, a life heavily influenced by racial and national prejudice, religious oppression and repression (Catholicism, mainly), family strife, class consciousness, and drugs.  Reading it, I found myself thinking often of Cormier’s The Chocolate War.   Both books are set in a Catholic school for boys, both involve multiple points of view as they follow the trajectory of a number of different boys through a major event  (here it’s six boys all somehow involved in the events surrounding a fight between two boys, the subsequent murder of one of them, and the chaos and conflict that emerges in the days following).  And both focus on the boys in moments when they are revealing either their greatest vulnerabilities or ugliest acts and desires.  There is, then, the sense of world as a hellhole occupied by very bad and/or very weak people, the sense of boys as inherently and always violent crowd-followers threatened by any individual act or characteristic of difference from the boy-approved norm–and also as in The Chocolate War, an undercurrent of theological speculation about the nature of sin and forgiveness.  A number of the focalizing characters seem to lurch peculiarly from what come across as fairly mindless acts of violence to deep thoughts about God and ethics and strong feelings of guilt.

As a result of all that, the book also seems somewhat overwrought and rather melodramatic–like a soap opera more than anything else.  And like a soap opera and in spite of a strong interest in guilt and the consequences of evil actions,  the violence, described as quite intense and damaging, never really seems to have physical consequences.  After some paragraphs of being beaten on, some of the boys show up in later sections with a black eye or so, and no other apparent damage or long-lasting effects, quite able to be further involved in events that move the plot forward.  the damage described in The Chocolate War seems far more effective and therefore, far more important.

And also, here, there’s something more than a little odd about how the boys simply act violently without thought, even in response to acts of violence: they’re very much into revenge at its most basic and primal level.  They seem mostly to be inherently and at heart uncontrollably violent beings whose speculations about guilt and sin represent a veneer of socialization or religionization imposed from without–something acknowledgeably good and worth striving for but also inherently artificial, a willed imposition of repression counter to their real drives and urges.  There is no real drive to goodness or innocence or fellow feeling here, in other words–all of that is something you figure out intellectually and then work to impose on your natural self.  Maybe that’s why the book seems so hellish?  It does believe people (or maybe just boys and men) are inherently rotten and stuck with working out the inevitable problem of their being inherently rotten in a world primarily made rotten by the acts of older people, primarily older men.

Also as in as soap opera and as in The Chocolate War, these characters, who mostly know each other and are, to varying degres, friends, all have secrets from each other or from others.  They are secret weaknesses or vulnerabilities, mainly–especially one boy’s awareness that he is gay in a culture where he is sure it will be exceedingly dangerous to be known as gay.  But other have family situations they’d rather others not know about, one is a drug dealer and always high, one thinks he believes in pacifism but is afraid it means he’s a coward, and so on.  Interestingly, many of these secrets and much of the plot involve questions about what it means to be masculine, and the book offers a range of boys who have problems with different aspects of conventional masculinity–either because they represent it or more often because they don’t.

The plot moves not only around issues of race and nationality, then, but also, around questions of maleness.  And normative masculinity seems to be represented as a socially coded expression of inherent maleness–the male as biologically violent, competitive, lustful, active, etc., etc., with these qualities reformed as the way boys are reassured again and again males ought to be.  Curiously, again, the book seems quite unhappy with how conventional masculinity represses and oppresses males and females, but also seems to assume that that masculinity is an expression of inherent male qualities that need to be curbed rather than a culturally powerful form of behaviour that might not actually or inevitably have tyrannical biological roots.   For that reason, the book seems determined to sentence males to hell–they are who they are, and that’s dangerous to themselves and others, so they have to learn how to control their inherent and unavoidable male tendencies and always be on guard against them, forever after.  there’s no such thing as a non-violent male except in terms of hard fought self-control?

At any rate:  part of how the novel engages its multiple focalizations is both in terms of offering a diverse spectrum of different ways of being male or, more accurately, of confronting the problem of maleness, and in terms of manipulating access to secrets (secrets kept often due to questions of maleness, male bonding, etc.).  Readers, who know at any point everything that all the focalized characters have thought so far,  are privy to secrets that some of the characters don’t know.  Often, the knowledge seems to be engaged as a way of showing the inadequacies of the boy’s perceptions or understanding of each other.  We learn that what bulks large for one matters not at all for some of the others, or that what they interpret one way actually means something quite different to others involved in it or learning about it.  And the last sequence, in which the boys confess their knowledge of the crimes to each other and then to the police, involves strong explicit statements about the value of letting others in on what we keep secret, from shame or guilt or fear of consequences.    The gay boy actually goes to confession (the novel as a whole acts as a sort of confessional, as the characters in turn confess their actions to–who?  the reader?  themselves?).  H e feels unburdened and free after he does, and then confesses also to his best friend whom he has feared might hate him for being gay–or for keeping it a secret for so long.  The novel makes all this positive by having both the priest he confesses to and his friend accept his sexuality without criticism or question, and then the boys all ocnfess everything to each other and to the authorities, and it’s more or less a good thing for almost all of them.  Letting others in on secrets is always and only a good thing, and for a book built on such bleak understandings of the environment and the inherent human condition, the ending is surprisingly upbeat and optimistic–unlike, for instance, The Chocolate War, which makes acting on who you believe you are much less easy, and offer a more ambiguous exploration of the morality and the possible vanity and masochism of public acts of defiance.

And also, on the other hand, by moving from character to character, the author can keep secrets from the reader–which allows the novel to act as a sort of mystery.  As the boys interact with each other, various specific ones of their actions seem to just be conveniently skimmed over, in ways that we and they get to fill in later.  Thus, the actual murders is present in earlier focalization and thinking about many of his actions on the night in question–but never the actual event itself, which then is left as a secret to be uncovered by others later.

The consideration of secrets kept or thoughts or actions hidden also allows another theme to develop–questions about how people observe each other and are observed by others.  They all worry about how others see them or what others have seen them doing, what other know or don’t know.  They all fear and hide from surveillance (the panopticon of a peer group?) and surveillance, it’s clear, is ongoing and universal.  One character, apparently unknown to any of the others even though e is in class with them, seems himself as the detached observer–invisible to others, but others highly visible to him in ways that eventually lead to the outing of the gay guy and the identification of the murderer.   As he becomes more involvewd with others, and as others acknowledge more of what they are and let others see it, more of a community forms.  It’s a community, furthermore, which ends up isolating the murderer–for he emerges as a psychopath incapable of forming actually bonds with others.  In a sort of wish-fulfilment society, all the people who assumed that the murder was racially (or nationally) motivated in a turbulent racial situation are wrong–it was a basic lack of humanity and human involvement that created it, not politics or social issues.  The boy who did the deed did it because he enjoyed doing it and like the idea of getting away with it, and just used the political situation as a pretext.  Evil does not emerge from politics or thinking, it seems, but from a damaged individual human pysche (and Powers make sure we understand, at the end, that this boy is warped not by genetics so much as by the horrors of his bad parenting and upbringing.  This is the sort of logic that says Hitler was inherently evil, a bad person rather than a true believer in a powerful and powerfully dangerous ideology of race).

As the book nears the end, the switches in focalization gradually increase.  The book starts with two or three chapters per each character, then moves to them changing chapter by chapter, and then in a series of different narrative all in just one chapter. This rhyhm replicates andi reinforces their movement from isolation and secretiveness into somethinbg more like a community of shared knowledge.   They interact more as they shift more.

I’ve said surprisingly little about race issues so far, considering the extent to which the book demands attention to question of race and often makes explicit statements about it–it’s the main thing the characters talk to each other about throughout the novel.  The intriguing thing, however, is that race turns out to be less of an issue than nationality–its the Americans versus the Mexicans, eventually, and the Americans include Mexican Americans, and those who have immigrated are confused about who they are or which side they should be on.    So it’s very much a novel about borders and their strange effects on people who might be understood as not firmly placed on one side of a border or the other (and the secrets theme also works in terms of borders, the borders between what we are and what we allow others to know of us, etc.)  The various focalizaitions offer a spectrum of responses to race and naiton issues as well as a spectrum of speculations about masculinity.

I noticed in reading the jacket flap info about the author that there are no pronouns to describe Powers– no “he” or “she” or “him” or “her,”  and the  initials J.L also conceal his or her sex– her sex, as it turns out, a fact I quickly established in a Google search.  So why did the publishers choose to hide it on the jacket?  A clear case of S. E. Hinton-itis, obviously–as with The Outsiders, etc., a book about boys and maleness is likely to be less successful with boy readers if written by a woman?  And indeed, in this case, I suspect it is.  As I was reading the book, something struck me as sort of off about these boys, and precisely in terms of their being boyish, although what it was I couldn’t say, although I wasn’t surprised to learn that the author is female.  Something about the disconnect between their thoughtfulness and their more or less sudden and unthought acts of violence?  As if when they act as boy traditionally do, the author can’t imagine them thinking their way into it, being tohhgtfully violent?  I don’t know, but it’s certainly worth further thinking about.

I’ve said far more about this novel than i thought I would.  There’s a lot to think more about here. An interesting novel.

Anderson, Rachel.  The Bus People.  1989.  New York: Henry Holt, 1992.

Originally published in the UK, this book is a set of interconnected stories–a form of alternating narrative I haven’t looked at closely before.  in this case, they really aren’t all that interconnected.  The central characters in each of the stories are children who ride a bus to a special school for children with various mental and physical deficiencies, and there are sections at the beginning and the end which focus on the driver of the bus and his view of his passengers.   But by virtue of their various problems, and also, clearly, by the choice of the author, the characters have very little in the way of contact with each other.  They just about never think about each other or even seem to be all that aware of each other, and the stories about them are not about what happens on the bus but about other moments and experiences in their lives away from each other  So what is connected for readers–a set of insights into the diverse situations of what is actually, for all their problems, a fairly diverse set of characters, is not really connected at all for the characters themselves.  Even at the end, which makes a halfhearted attempted at a conventional children’s literature happy ending by having a flat tire on the bus result in the children getting off and playing in a group together, is hardly a representation of a movement from isolation to a community: the children all play at the same time, but not necessarily with, or even with very much awareness of, each other

Perhaps that’s a deliberate irony here: as a result of their problems, these characters are isolated, imprisoned inside themselves–and indeed that’s the central theme running through all the stories, whether as a perception of another character in the story or as the central concern of a character him or herself.  I have to say that I’m not totally convinced that actual people in these circumstances are so obsessively centred on their own isolation from everyone else.  They, after all, often do not have the other experience of “normal” connectivity to compare their own situation with; they don’t necessarily know how relatively isolated they are in relation to the experiences of other people.  But the author, identified on the jacket flap as “herself the mother of a mentally handicapped child,” has a clear conviction that conditions like these are most inherently and importantly isolating, for it’s an idea that comes back again and again, as well as being the central sense that emerges from the lack of connection between the theoretically connected stories.  they actually represent a set of variations on themes of misunderstanding and isolation.

For instance, the first story is about a mentally handicapped girl all set to be her sister’s bridesmaid, until some nasty interfering aunts say it will be embarrassing–and everyone in her family, astonishingly, agrees.  (I can accept the aunts’ annoyance as a possible thing, but I’m astonished that a family so ready to allow the girl to be a bridesmaid that she has the dress and all would suddenly cave in and hurt her at the last minute–it just isn’t logical, and it seems to happen only to make a luridly melodramatic point about how thoughtless people are.)  The story then twists the knife by allowing this mentally challenged person to have a clear, subtle, and accurate perception of everything that’s happening and what it all means not only emotionally but ethically.  It’s as if she were a Henry James unable to communicate and so doomed to be misunderstood and underestimated–and not just cut off from others, but tragically isolated in the prison of her own very profound understandings of what she sees and others refuse to acknowledge.  Indeed, many of the other characters are similarly isolated in a similarly rich understanding of their own situations that those around them are ignorant of and prefer, clearly, not to know about.  It’s as if the author cannot imagine, or simply refuses to imagine, that other people might understand their situation differently from the way she does.  One section begins, “If Fleur spoke, this is the story she might tell,” and the story that follows once more gives her a very clear understanding of herself as an empathetic outsider with a more usual understanding of psychology and morality might see her.  The actual otherly-abled child has been replaced by what I have to understand as a wish-filfulment fantasy of her as inherently understanding and wise–and therefore,  in a situation doubly ugly, for not only is she mentally deficient and damaged, but she is perfectly able to understand her own situation and insightful about it and so, imprisoned not only by lack of understanding but by a horrific possession of understanding also.   These are, I have to say, really creepy stories, in ways I’m fairly sure the author didn’t intend to be creepy.  they amount to horror stories

Not only are the characters mostly unaware of each other, but the stories that feature them as central characters represent a wide variety of narrative techniques.  At the start, Bertraim is in the present tense in a story told by a third person narrator, and at the end, the narration is in the past tense.  in between, some stories are in the present, some in the past, some in the third person, some told by a first person narrator’s point of view.  The sense of a random variety of different effects once more emphasizes the distinctness of these stories from each other, the insufficiency of the attempt to suggest community or connections between desperately isolated and imprisoned people.

Hughes, Monica.  Log Jam.  Toronto: Irwin, 1987.

Opposite to what tends to happen in novels presenting similar situations written more recently, Monica Hughes Log Jam rejects the power of Aboriginality in favour of white middle-class values.  The novel’s  pair of intertwined narratives involve a white middle class girl with family problems and an Aboriginal boy in quest of his heritage–so that its rejection of that heritage is surpringly straightforward.

The Aboriginal character, Isaac, having messed up life in the city and then escaped from a detention centre, begins by turning his back on the white world in what is represented as an effort to return to the past, to find “the way back to his grandmother’s country” (5).  The white girl, Lenora hates her new blended family and the wilderness the camping trip meant to bond them together has led her to, and longs for the life back home in the city.   But while one character seeks the wild and the other the city, and while one seems to represent the personal problems of being a middle class girl with a new family and the other the social problems of being Aboriginal in the context of contemporary Canada, their paths are parallel.  Both are “in prison” and flee it for what once was, a golden time past. Despite their clearly enunciated differences–her whiteness, his aboriginality, her wealthy, his poverty, her law-abiding, his criminality–there is a connection between them they are unaware of. At one point, Lenora

struggled with a bitter concept.  Maybe all of us are alone most of the time,.  Each one in his or her own prison.  No matter how hard you try, you can’t really share your thoughts, the things that matter most.   . . . . Maybe life is really about understanding this prison and trying to break free of it, any way you can. . . . Maybe just reaching out to someone else who’s trying too get free would do” (153).

Not surprisingly, then, the story brings the two together in a way that allows them to understand each other and solve their individual problems together.  But the solution is for both of them to return to where they were at the start–her to a family she no longer understands as imprisoning, but him to an actual prison.  If it’s wrong of Lenora’s new relatives to be “an indestructible threesome, needing no outsiders” (45), and self-indulgent of one of her new stepbrothers to speak of his canoe trip with his father and brother as “one last chance to go back to the old days, when there were just the three of us” (69), then it’s equally foolish of Isaac to separate himself from the white world and want to return to the old Aboriginal life.  If it’s wise of Lenora to adapt to her new situation, then it’s equally wise of him to accept his.  The paralleling works to erase the assimilationist political implications of the non-Aboriginal fate Hughes imagines for Isaac and for the Aboriginality he clearly represents generally.

Lenora is a reformer, and what she wants is right–so it’s right to believe that “[f]amily traditions have to be adapted to family changes” (44), and she is right about the non-Aboriginal future she encourages Isaac to seek.  The strangest aspect of the book, however, is that Isaac, wanting a return to his Aboriginality, believes himself to be on a traditional vision quest:

When his spirit showed itself, whether it was a rabbit or bear, eagle or deer, the young man would know that he was to live under the protection of that animal, learn its cunning or strength, its keen eyes or its swiftness.” (75)

But what comes to him is a young white girl, Lenora–“she had been sent to him, there was no doubt about that” (118)–and he does in fact learn to live under the protection of her people and in terms of her values.  In his mind, therefore, she takes on Aboriginality, but in a distressingly deceptive way that the book clearly approves, for what she has to teach him in that guise is the virtue of renouncing Aboriginality. She quite literally tells him to do just that: “I mean, it’s no good talking about sun dances and spirit searches and stuff like that.  They’re yours, anyway.  Private and nobody else’s business . . .” (157).  As in Welewyn Katz’s False Face or or Bebe Faas Rice’s The Place at the Edge of the Earth or so many other novels of htis sort, aboriginality is to be kept safely separate from a contemporary world that has no place or need for it.
Lenora offers Isaac this advice in the context of assuming that only one person can help him–her practical-minded new stepfather, a stereotypical patriarch of the old school whom she at first despises.  First she must acknowledge that she herself needs and wants his protection. She remembers “that instinctive feeling when she had first met Harry.  That here at last was someone steady and secure.  Someone who could be trusted not to throw over a job for a dream . . .” (107), as her own impractical father did.  And later, “With a rush of thankfulness, Lenora realized that indeed Harry could be counted on to do something to help . . . how comfortable it was, how safe it felt to have someone in the family you could trust to really help you” (156).  In order to get that help, Lenora tells Isaac, “What we’ve got to do is work out exactly what to tell him so that he understands” (1570.  The novel not only requires a renouncement of the Aboriginal, then, but does so as the price for obtaining the desirable approval of a paternalistic white man.
In the light of that, it’s not surprisingly that the novel confirms the rightness of Isaac’s acceptance of white values by denying him the land he claims as his.  His wish is to “[g]o back to the river and the lake.  Find your spirit and live the way your grandmother taught you” (31).  But as he says later, “I think that then I was running away from reality” (166); seeking Aboriginal roots in a traditional Aboriginal place is unrealistic.  It turns out that Isaac’s grandmother’s house is underwater, caused by a dam–there is in fact no land to flee back to: “Kind of funny, isn’t it?  All those years I was dreaming about the place I wanted to be, the place where I thought I belonged, it wasn’t there.  It was under water” (167).
Furthermore, the traditional life Isaac seeks is one he views as being in tune with the wilderness–a lifestyle he views, like so many other characters in these novels–as being at odds with white ideas about property and even home; “If Grandmother’s stories were right, his people had done pretty well for thousands of years with no fixed address . . . . the earth under his back was his home.  This spruce above his head was home. This forest was his address” (41).   But once more, Lenora’s views of the forest are wiser.  Like so many characters throughout the history of Canadian literature, She finds it “terrifying” (19), and sees that “The shadows of the trees fell across a more open stretch of road, like prison bars” (23).  She therefore flees this too-wild place for the safety of a traditional Canadian garrison under the governorship of a typical patriarch–the exact opposite journey to what Isaac wrongly hoped for. The novel offers only these two alternatives–the non-Aboriginal life of contemporary society in the present or the now-impossible Aboriginal life of the wilderness in the past.  As more or less happens in Katz’s False Face and Rice’s The Place at the Edge of theEarth and Kevin Major’s Red Blood Ochre, there is no acknowledgement of a possible middle term–no apparent way an Aboriginal can live Aboriginally and in the present.

Frost, Helen.  Keesha’s House.  2003.  New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2007.

There are no characters in this novel (by the Helen Frost who wrote The Braid, discussed here in a previous entry) and in fact, really, no plot.  It consists of a series of poems in traditional forms, mostly sestinas and some sonnets, each presenting a statement in the present tense by one of seven young people, each in the same order in a series of different sections with different titles and, in two separate sections, similar present tense statements by various of the adults involved in the lives of these young people.  I’m calling these “statements” because it’s hard to come up with the words to accurately describe what they’re trying to be.  They seem at first glance like attempts to capture the characters’ thought processes–but they are far too objective in their descriptions of what purport to be intense moments of confusion or emotion to have the feeling of thought, far too much ability to summarize succinctly what their emotions mean:

What it meant to Dad
was that he didn’t know me.  I turned into someone
he’s hated all his life.

I suppose I could put that intense knowingness and awareness and linguistic capability down to the fact that this is appearing in what claims to be a poem.  But if so, then making these statements “poetic” in that way and in the first person at the same time seems an error.  The characters are meant to be young, inexperienced, and having trouble sorting out who they are and what to do with their lives; and at the very same time, they’re sounding very assured, very adult, and very much like a middle-aged counseller might perceive them and talk about them from a position outside their own heads.

And perhaps partly for that reason, they are quite unconvincing-without character.  they come across as stereotypes of teenager angst, the characters having no feelings or habits or hobbies separate from the ones attached to the one large problem each of them has.  Each represents one common form of teenage trouble:  being pregnant, having a pregnant girlfriend, having abusive parents or stepparents; drinking; being gay.   Indeed, all have exactly the same problem, for the initial problem in each case translates into ways in which all these young people have been failed by the adults in their lives, who abuse them, or who won’t understand or sympathize with their situations; and as a result, all feel unsafe or uncomfortable in what claims to be their home, and all therefore leave home.

The central plot device is about how a man, himself dispossessed when young, has inherited a house that he then allows young people to stay in without questions or supervision; he just allows them to be there.  Having been failed by adults and the mainstream societal values they represent, these seven teens find a better, more loving, safer home with each other.  The book then hopes to operate as teen wish-fulfilment fantasy, taking it for granted that most adults, especially those in parental roles, are vicious, self-seking, thoughtless monsters; the only good adults here are not parents but empathetic councillors and therapists or someone hwo just lets teens be on their own.  And yet, at the same time, those counsellors and such takes for granted a whole bunch of quite conventional contemporary ideologies about how to be a better and saner person that emerge straight from the mainstream of pop psychology healing.   The novel then reads as a sort of mindless celebration of the wonders of being yourself and loving yourself and such–a celebration of egocentricity and self-concern masquerading as healing.

It also comes across as a clear statement of a sort of smug and theoretically liberal guilt, which pats itself on the back for being so caring and understanding and empathetic abut these poor lost souls whom most adults don’t get and actually damage.  Aren’t we adults (all except me, the author of the ever so empathetic poems seems to imply) all so tough on poor besieged teenagers? And aren’t I so sensitive and caring for noticing it and caring about it and taking their side?

Can you tell I don’t like it?

But my dislike for the shallow values and one-sided situations and pseudo-liberal values presented here matters, in this context, because it does perhaps throw light on what’s wrong with how alternating narratives come into play here.  The character keep insisting on how nobody understands them and their individual personalities and needs, and meanwhile, the poems that express these thoughts all sound exactly like each other, as if all in the same voice.  For all the theoretical interests in individuals, the writing offers no sense of individuality–everyone is exactly the same victim, and thinks about his or her victimhood in exactly the same way–as, i suppose, a not very perceptive adult would assume “teenagers” think.   It is, then, a book, about “teenagers,” not a book about actual people.  The claim to be in different voices merely confirms an erasure of difference, an imposition of mindless stereotyping on the world of the young.  The alternations are only superfically alternative to each other.

Also eraing difference is the weird use of these traditional poetic forms.   There is no apparent reason for their use.  They add nothing to what the characters say except the sense of a similar rhythm and character in their supposedly different speech patterns.   I have no ideas why the verse is here, and neither the text nor the author’s note at the back about the forms suggests one.  It just ends up seeming like a way of showing off by the author: look how clever I am, I managed to express regular-sounding sentences in the form of complex verse patterns so well you hardly even notice the verse patterns.  Indeed, I suspect that most readers, young or old, are unlikely to pay much attention to them, except as an odd intrusion of repetitiousness into the ongoing character revelations, etc.   There certainly isn’t any sense that these theoretical complexities of language might repay further attention, make each of or any of the individual poems more revealing with as closer look ast them.

What they do, mostly is justify the fact that the book is very short, and therefore easy to absorb.  Yet once more, apparently sophisticated techniques of storytelling are turned, in as text for young people into ways of maintaining simplicity and lack of sophistication.  That the sections of this book are poems makes it not just shorter but simpler than a connected narrative might well be–and much less likely to be truly emotionally effective.  Nothing actually happens, since the characters are always caught in moments of reflection after the fact, after what happened happened.  The action occurs between the poems, not in them, and instead of happening, it’s always being explained and therefore its potential for danger or excitement explained away.   We’re meant to focus on the therapeutic value of coming to terms with events rather than on the interest of the events themselves.   The book is, then, because of its separate alternating sections, deliberately distancing and uninvolving in order to be deliberately and singlemindedly therapeutic–and very simple in its thematic content as well as its depictions of characters and situations.

I don;t suppose I need to add that, exactly as expected in this ever so conventional and stereotyped world,  the characters do what characters in a multi-focalized young adult novel almost always do:  they move from isolation into connection with each other, in a new community based on their shared bad situations and away from the oppressive power of the inevitably bad parents in their lives.   For all its focus on adults things like having babies and sexuality and murder, its a very childish book, creating a children’s-lit kind of wish-fulfilment utopia for its characters by the end, in a way that I suspect seriously misrepresents the potential for universal happy endings in the lives of actual young people with this sort of problems, the possibility of this kind of therapeutic thinking working a hundred percent of the time, the the possibility of young people like this being able to live together unsupervised in harmony.

As my Bubba Esther would have said, “Feh.”  What particularly saddens me is that a book like this represents what most adult experts imagine YA literature should be well enough to have named as Printz honour book–one of the most prize-deserving YA novels of its year.  It certainly does represent that weird amalgam of pseudo-literary pretension, clichéd characters and situations, and pop psychology that way too much literature identified as being “for young adults” all too often is.