Books

Remembering childhood

JOHN BEMROSE November 10 1997
Books

Remembering childhood

JOHN BEMROSE November 10 1997

Remembering childhood

The best juvenile novels avoid sentimentality and appeal to adults, too

JOHN BEMROSE

They may not be as famous as Atwood or Munro or Richler, but for their loyal (and growing) legions of fans, Canada’s authors of

fiction for young people are stars in their own right. The best of them—writers such as Kit Pearson, Martha Brooks and James Heneghan—are experts in remembering what many adults have forgotten: what it feels like to be a child.

And they not only remember, they offer a vision of hope to young readers—embodied in stories that inevitably, end happily, or at least with a sense of promise. For young people struggling with loneliness or disappointment or rage—all the usual and unusual difficulties of growing up—such optimism is crucial. At the same time, the finest of these books have nothing smarmy or sentimental about them: everything from family breakup to the death of loved ones can be found on their pages, treated with an artistry— and this may be the definitive test of their quality—that often makes them as appealing to adults as to younger readers. ®

Among the new offerings flooding into bookstores, one % of the most compelling is Vang couver author Kit Pearson’s t Awake and Dreaming (Viking,

$19.99). Recently nominated « for a Governor General’s Award, 1 it tells the story of nine-year-old “

Theo, a Vancouver girl who has taken refuge in a world of bookish daydreams. And no wonder. Her 25-year-old single mother, Rae, is a self-centred kind of mom, who leaves Theo alone for several days in their apartment while she goes gallivanting with her latest boyfriend. Theo wishes she could belong to one of the “real” families, with lots of kids and loving parents, who populate the books she loves. Then, mysteriously, she gets her wish—only to see it fade and leave her lonelier than before. In the end, though, her own resourcefulness and some timely help from a ghost show her a way forward.

Pearson—the author of the popular Guests of War trilogy—has a faultless sense of de-

tail. When Theo, who is so poor that her shoes are falling apart, is given two new pairs one day, she is so excited she takes both to bed with her. This is a book that never strays far from its poignant awareness of a child’s needs.

Another Governor General’s Award contender is Calgary scriptwriter Cheryl Foggo’s first novel for young readers, One Thing That’s True (Kids Can, $16.95). The

book follows 13-year-old Roxanne as she rides the hormone roller-coaster between elation and sudden tears. As well, her parents are fighting, her younger brother likes to run away from home, and she is in love with a guy who kisses her as if she were his sister. Of such stuff teen fiction is usually made, but what sets Foggo’s book apart is Roxanne’s droll, weirdly apt narrative style. Trapped at a boozy party, she notes with distaste some “very unpleasant guys that looked sort of like those people you see on the news rioting after hockey games.” Roxanne and her family happen to be black, but this is not a dominant theme in the book: her dilemmas are every girl’s.

While Pearson and Foggo track the con-

temporary scene, other writers have turned to history. In Wish Me Luck (Farrar Straus Giroux, $21.50) Vancouver author James Heneghan—yet another GG nominee— draws on his own boyhood in Liverpool to create a rivetting story ofthat city during the Second World War. The book’s narrator, Jamie Monaghan, is a working-class boy whose Irish family lives in a Liverpool row house. Next door is another 13-year-old, the

phenomenally tough Tom Bleeker. The two lads rather enjoy the spectacle of the German bombing, but when Jamie’s house is nearly burned down, his parents decide to send him to safety in Canada. Tom is to be shipped off, too, and so the two boys find themselves on the luxury cruiser, The City of Benares—which in actual fact was sunk in 1940 by a German U-boat.

Heneghan has created a small masterpiece reminiscent of the pithy humor of Irish novelist Roddy Doyle. Jamie comments at one point, “Girls were a mystery, like the Blessed Trinity, only more interesting.” Perhaps only an adult reader could fully appreciate such a line, and while it is certainly a young person’s book, Wish Me Luck would not have been

out of place in the GG list for grownup fiction.

Another worthwhile historical novel is Ontario author Janet Lunn’s The Hollow Tree (Knopf, $19.95), which follows the fortunes of 15-year-old Phoebe Olcott during the American Revolution. Loyal to the British Crown, Phoebe endures a long and dangerous trek from her home in New Hampshire to refuge in Canada. Lunn seems captivated by what used to be called “the romance of history”: there is something melodramatic and picturesque about Phoebe’s adventures, even though Lunn has clearly grounded her book in meticulous research. The same might be said of Jean Little’s The Belonging Place (Viking, $19.99). Its heroine and narrator, Elspet Mary, recalls her Scottish childhood and her emigration to the woods of Canada in the mid19th century. Little has infused her tale with a good-heartedness and charm that sustains it through some weak narrative patches. The early chapters, about the death of Elspet Mary’s mother when she was only 4, are particularly moving.

In a different vein, Toronto writer and Gestalt therapist Joan Bodger has created a captivating New Age fairy tale in Clever-Lazy

(Tundra, $8.99). Its feisty heroine, CleverLazy—the name is a timely reminder of how indolence and creativity often go hand in hand—is an inventor who has dreamed up such wonders as the abacus and fireworks. When the Emperor of her mythic land wants to torture her (in order to find out the secret of making gunpowder), she and her husband, Tinker, flee to the mountainous region where she was born. There, they take refuge in the mysterious ruins of a temple once used by worshippers of a great goddess whose religion of harmony with nature and peaceful co-existence is now outlawed.

Unlike so many synthetic fairy tales with their boring air of whole-wheat didacticism, this feminist parable is believable and fun.

And although it is philosophically a little softheaded (goddess-dominated ages were probably no less bloody than those ruled by gods), Clever-Lazy envisages ideals of loving and living well worth striving for.

Finally, Owen Sound, Ont. author Karleen Bradford has woven traditional themes of chivalric adventure into a compelling coming-of-age tale, Dragonfire (HarperCollins, $12.95). Dahl, a boy on the verge of manhood, knows he is the rightful ruler of the kingdom of Taun. ButTaun has been taken over by a cruel and disturbing figure called The Usurper. The sword fights and encounters with dragons that mark Dahl’s struggle towards reclaiming his throne are only part of this story. At a deeper level, Dragonfire is

Powered by Dahl’s relationship with what Carl Jung called the shadow: that darker, unknown side of oneself that must be met and embraced if true growth is to occur. Dahl’s final battle with The Usurper is one of the most thrilling encounters with the shadow in children’s literature. Cheaper than

therapy, Dragonfire offers an unforgettable experience of initiation. □

Deft handling of thorny issues

A couple of years ago, when Winnipeg author Martha Brooks was struggling to write her fifth novel for young people, Bone Dance (Groundwood, $9.95), she worried about what she calls “the very thorny issue of cultural appropriation: how could I, a white, write about native teenagers?” Brooks consulted a native elder, Jules Lavallee, about her problem. She also joined a prayer circle run by Lavallee in a lodge outside the city. Sitting with up to 20 others, she took her turn holding the

eagle feather that was passed among them, and learned to speak candidly about her life. Not only did she find the confidence to go on with Bone Dance, but she says she also conquered the fear that had prevented her from pursuing her other passion—singing. Two years later, Brooks joined Winnipeg’s Michelle Grégoire Trio, and now, at 53, enjoys a parallel career crooning jazz tunes and ballads in clubs around the city.

The author of books including Traveling on into the Light and Two Moons in August, Brooks says she began work on Bone Dance each day by burning sweetgrass and sage, in a ceremony that honored “those marvellous people who have gone before us. I felt that some of them were with me while I was writing.” Certainly, her deep appreciation of native culture shows in the book. It is the compelling tale of two teenagers, Lonny and Alexandra, who discover that the traditional mythology and spirituality of their people can help them with their own growing pains. Brooks brings her two protagonists together in a vivid, slow-motion eruption of

young sexuality and spiritual angst. In the end, they undergo a kind of mutual initiation into the mysteries of love and maturity.

Somewhat unusually in current teen fiction, both Lonny and Alex come from essentially loving families. In fact, most of the adults in their lives are fine, caring people. Brooks says she felt it was important to show this at a time when “too many adults are so obsessed with youth that they can’t grow up.” Adds Brooks; “That’s a sad thing for young people. You have to see something attractive about the adult world to want to join it.”

The author herself grew up on the grounds of a tuberculosis sanatorium in southwestern Manitoba where her father, Dr. Alfred Paine, was medical superintendent and chief surgeon, and her mother, Theodis, worked as a nurse. Though plagued with chronic chest ailments, Brooks enjoyed what she calls a “lucky, freewheeling childhood” exploring the nearby woods a¡ , i would one day become the setting for much of her fiction. At 18, Brooks moved to Winnipeg where she still lives with her husband of 30 years, Brian Brooks, who own ngency. The

couple have a grown child, writer Kirsten Brooks, and have been “adopted” as spiritual parents by two younger native people. Brooks speaks of her writing as almost an extension of her parenting. “It behooves the young-adult fiction writer to deliver a window her readers can see out of, where they can see some means of understanding and hope," she says. “You can do a lot of harm it you don’t write with a certain wisdom.”

J.B.