________________ CM . . . . Volume XII Number 21 . . . . June 23, 2006


Three Songs for Courage.

Maxine Trottier.
Toronto, ON: Tundra Books, 2006.
324 pp., cloth., $22.99.
ISBN 0-88776-745-1.

Grades 10-12 / Ages 15-17.

Review by Joan Marshall.

*** /4


I don't know why I'm crying. He's a puke and it shouldn't bother me. It's just that it was going to be so nice to sit there and enjoy the fireworks and everything and he made it seem ...dirty. We weren't doing anything! He made me feel dirty."

"You're not," Gordon whispered into her hair, feeling anger build in his chest once again. She pushed away from him, but it was only so that she could slide her arms around him underneath his jacket. Mary rubbed her forehead against his shoulder and cried, and his T-shirt got wet, and he was pretty sure her running nose was coating him with snot, but Gordon didn't care. He had never felt happier. "It's okay. Don't cry. (Please, Jesus, let her cry until her eyeballs fall out because if she stops I'll have to let her go.) Just forget it. (I won't forget it for a thousand years.) He's a creep.

"Stay away from him, Gordon," she snuffled, her voice hitching, the crying jag at last under control. "Stay away from all of them. They're bad, but Lancer is the worst. Promise me. No fighting because of tonight. I mean if you have to defend yourself that's one thing, but no looking for it because of what he said about me."

Gordon had lied twice that day. He could have made it an even three, for there was nothing so clear and bright and prefect in his mind at that moment as the thought of revenge. Instead, he said, "I promise." He meant it.

Three Songs for Courage is a nostalgic shutter-click of small town Ontario on Lake Erie, circa 1956. Like all good historical fiction, it immerses the reader in an alien world and draws us all onward as we turn the pages to discover what happens to a compelling character, in this case 16-year-old Gordon Westley. This is a gentle look at a more unsophisticated time, when men were men (because of their war service) and boys were boys (who love to fart and whose minds revolve around one thing - sex with girls). This novel reeks of frustrated sexual desire and what could have been in lesser hands, clichés about gender roles. Trottier cleverly, and with a light touch, exposes the true thoughts of boys of the era, a time when many people married their high school sweethearts and lifetime love affairs began in the teen years.

     Gordon and his three best friends, collectively known as the Lakers, have planned a carefree summer, cruising in Gordon's car, named The Chief, and looking for girls. They go to the local movie show, the ubiquitous drive-in for hamburgers and Coke, and often frequent Kitchie's pool hall where they hone their billiards skills. Their fathers are war heroes with stern loving generosity, who regard their children benignly and with bemused attachment. Their mothers, more tense socially and more nervous about boy/girl relationships, are powerful women whom their children revere and love and fear, all at once. Their grandparents are still fighting the First World War in their minds.

     In this fateful summer, Gordon falls in love with delectable Mary Davidson, deals with the taunts of the Sultans and their leader Lancer Caldwell, and grows to instant manhood upon the seemingly accidental death of his younger brother, Stan. Grief for Stan overwhelms Gordon and his family. Gordon struggles to control his emotions, his sexual longings, and his disgust at Lance's crude behaviour towards Mary. When Gordon realizes that Lance must have killed Stan, he plans to shoot Lance with his father's WW II Luger. However, Injun Joely, the man who cleans the pool hall and always has a bit of wisdom to share with Gordon, talks him out of it. A few days later, Joely disappears and Lance's body is discovered with one bullet hole through the head. In the fall, Gordon hears that Joely has drowned in the Ottawa River (in spite of his fear of water that kept him from ever approaching a body of water). His sister includes in her note to Gordon, a sealed letter from Joely that implies that Joely had killed Lance so that Gordon wouldn't have to face the guilt of doing so. Gordon learns that Joely was an educated man who lived with the guilt of his job as a WWI sniper until he died.

     Gordon is a strong, believable character whose honest, forthright nature belies his wild sexual dreams and cool James Dean-like behaviour. Coping in agony with the social conventions of the times, his "boners" painfully obvious, especially to his beloved Mary, Gordon's self-deprecating wit saves him from stereotyping. Gordon develops patience and understanding as he takes on a more adult role in life by the end of the novel.

     Gordon and his friends' worst sin is drinking beer underage (at a time when the age of majority was 21), and the Sultan's idea of insulting someone is to spit on them in a movie theatre or to let air out of their car tires. The violence of the two world wars only simmers beneath the surface. The boys deliver groceries on bicycles for a summer job but know where the WWII Luger is kept. They have to obtain permission to date a girl but can never "go too far." High school students plug the toilets at the school as a prank, and the wave of sexual tension explodes in crude lip-sticked messages on the washroom walls.

     The setting is so perfectly 1956 Ontario. From the beach scenes to the dance club to the pool hall; from the expressions like "feeb' and "cripes' and "cock teaser" and "daddy-o" that define the era, to the duck's ass hair styles of the boys and the pointy bras and shocking two piece bathing suits, this novel drenches the reader in post-war culture.

     Trottier's narrative style is bracketed by a prologue and the use of dramatic irony that keeps the reader wondering what will happen next. Each chapter is headed by one of Joely's "grandfather's" quotes that reflect the action; the real sources of the quotes (which reflect Joely's actual literary education) are listed in a "Quotation Sources" at the end of the book.

     The title is derived from Joely's message to Gordon that a man will in his lifetime hear three songs for courage: "the song one sings when victory is clear, the song you sing when defeat's bitter taste is in your mouth, (and the song) each person must learn alone."

     Now the question is, who will read this book? Marketed to "mature readers" (does this mean older teens or adults?) the fabulously cool cover of a sharp young guy circa 1956 with '50's cars in the background will call out both to boys and girls in high school. On the other hand, for this audience, Three Songs for Courage is truly historical fiction. In 2006, when grade six girls give oral sex to their classmates and more than half of high school students have been involved in sexual relationships, this audience will wonder at the sexual teasing and tension and will be astounded at the childish behaviour of the novel's characters. People who are over sixty will lap this book up: it's their time, their pain and their life. Too bad the marketing for this novel couldn't have set it more clearly set in the camp of memoir where it would no doubt attract the audience it deserves.


Joan Marshall is a Winnipeg, MB, bookseller who never did dare to wear a two piece swimsuit.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.