________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 16 . . . . April 3, 2009

cover As She Grows.

Lesley Anne Cowan.
Toronto, ON: Puffin Canada, 2009.
302 pp., pbk., $12.00.
ISBN -978-0-14-317060-0.

Grades 8-11 / Ages 13-16.

Review by Ann Ketcheson.

**** /4


I sit on the edge of the big pool, extend my legs so that my feet are barely skimming the water. Behind me the Dolphin toddler class shrieks as the instructor pretends his elbow is a shark fin and chases their bubble-floating bodies.

Water has skin. A strong layer caused by surface tension. It explains how bugs skitter across water as if walking on stone. The women in our family have thick skin, Elsie's voice resonates in my head, as if we had these heroic pioneer ancestors who chopped firewood for their freezing children. And I remember thinking, What family? What women? I dip my big toe slightly into the water, watching it pierce the surface. That's the strange thing about skin. This thin layer can be stretched forever, holding all of you together, but it can be broken by just the smallest pinprick.

On the surface, Snow is a pretty average teen: she goes to high school in Toronto, gets average marks, has a boyfriend and lives with her grandmother. But that persona vanishes abruptly when the reader learns that Snow lives with her grandmother because her mother died when she was a baby, or so she's been told. And she cooks and cleans because her grandmother is an alcoholic and more than a little crazy. Mark, Snow's boyfriend, is in reality much older than she is and makes a living dealing drugs. Snow's life seems to be a disaster just waiting to happen.

    Although Snow has a tough exterior and seems to be more or less in control of this chaotic situation, life truly begins to unravel when she finds out she is pregnant. She will be adding a new member to this very dysfunctional family if she chooses to keep her child, and she can expect no support from the child's father. Snow moves into a group home and later to a home for pregnant girls as the social aid system attempts to step in and replace family in her life.

    The character of Snow tells this story, and readers may react quite strongly to her. On one hand, you feel she somehow deserves her destiny as she makes poor choices and speaks and reacts both emotionally and abrasively when she is crossed. Yet part of you cheers her on as she struggles to connect somehow to people around her and restore some sort of sanity to her life. One theme of the book questions whether people caught in the cycle of social services are destined to be there and are, therefore, forever caught in some sort of fated cycle, or whether this is a choice they make, perhaps based on the poor examples of generations before them. Although Snow is flawed in many ways and would be frustrating to deal with in real life, one cannot help but hope that somehow something will happen to help her escape.

     Interestingly enough, Cowan never tells her readers what Snow's ultimate destiny is. Like the character herself, this may result in real frustration for some readers. It indicates, however, that in some ways Snow isn't that different from anyone else. Very few of us see life in terms of clear-cut decisions and a straight-line journey. Solutions to whatever problems we face are rarely neatly wrapped up so that we can live 'happily ever after.'

     The themes of the book are relevant and modern and would provide lots of discussion in a classroom or a book club setting. Through Snow, we glimpse more clearly the endless cycle of teen pregnancy, social welfare systems and the physical and substance abuse which affect far too many young people in our society. The book is aimed at young adults, yet I am sure that teachers who read it will look differently at some kids in their classes. Other adults might have changed attitudes to kids who hang out at the local mall or on the street. Like her or not, Snow gives these nameless teens an identity, a personality.

     Cowan's writing is strong, forceful, vital. In places, it is intended to shock, drawing the reader into the gritty world as Snow knows it. Elsewhere the writing is more lyrical, presenting images and symbols such as skin and water. Thus it represents Snow's harsh exterior as well as an inner strength and calm that occasionally appear. This extends to the outer world as well, so often filled with horrible events and cruel people, yet with touches here and there of real caring and even love.

     Lesley Anne Cowan writes from her experience as a secondary school teacher of at-risk kids and this is why the story is so authentic. She outlines the roles of many adults in Snow's life - relatives, friends, teachers, counsellors, caregivers. Yet none of these, however well-intentioned, seems able to break through Snow's protective barrier. Cowan sympathizes with these adults and recognizes their efforts while at the same time understanding how limited their success might be. Often those of us who work with teens, troubled or not, never see the results of our efforts. Young adults move through our hands, and we do our best, but we rarely know how their lives turn out, whether we might have had even a tiny influence for the better.

     Thus, Cowan's story and the indefinite ending ring true. Caregivers will keep on caring; the Snows of this world will keep on making unfortunate choices. The book, however, is neither negative nor hopeless but rather an excellent reminder that whether or not we are successful, whether we give the care or are the recipient, the important thing is never to quit. In her blundering and abrasive way, Snow is persistent and one cannot but hope that she will continue to make small but steady gains in her life.

Highly Recommended.

Ann Ketcheson, a retired teacher-librarian and high school teacher of English and French, lives in Ottawa, ON, where she has turned her love of travel into a second career as a travel consultant.

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

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