________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 20 . . . . May 29, 2009

cover Snakes & Ladders.

Shaun Smith.
Toronto, ON: Dundurn Press, 2009.
235 pp., pbk., $12.99.
ISBN 978-1-55002-840-9.

Sbject Headings:
Brothers and sisters-Juvenile fiction.
Friendship-Juvenile fiction.

Family secrets-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 7-8 / Ages 12-13.

Review by Karen Rankin.

**½ /4



Paige looked down from her tree.


Something was wrong. From where she lay in the boughs of the giant oak, she could see her little brother, Toby, charging through the grass and wildflowers of the field that led from their grandfather’s old house. He ran unsteadily, jumping and stumbling, trying to follow the narrow, mud-packed foot-trail. Behind him he dragged a long stick, while ahead his thick glasses threw flashes of sunlight at the tree. Toby was eight years old, but he was small for his age, and each time he strayed from the trail the tall grass, up to his hips, tugged at his skinny legs like matted hair in a comb.

Paige pressed flat against the boards of the tree fort and stuck a finger in her paperback of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. She had been lost in the book, reading the part where Tom takes a whipping for falsely confessing that it was he, not the girl Becky, who had torn their schoolteacher’s anatomy book. Tom had a crush on Becky and wanted to protect her from the cruel teacher.

When Paige raised her eyes from the paperback, it felt as if she had flipped on a light switch. The sky was bright and clear, and she had to squint out across the field to find Toby. There was no sign of the other, older boy she had seen earlier at the farmhouse.

All around Paige the oak tree’s enormous canopy swayed in the warm breeze, its limbs creaking and hissing in a lumbering mass. The large hand-shaped leaves waved as though in greeting to Toby. The summer day was a stark contrast to the imagined misery of Tom Sawyer’s classroom, yet looking out at Toby now, Paige felt a gloom of her own – a very real one she had been fighting for days.

“Not again,” she said, a lump forming in the pit of her stomach. Then she gazed at the sky, where a ghostly half-moon floated as translucent as a jellyfish. “Please, not again.”

Snakes & Ladders is set in 1971. Fourteen-year-old Paige, her eight-year-old brother Toby, and their mother, are spending the summer in Muskoka. Because Paige and Toby’s parents have squabbled, their father has missed some weekends up at the cottage, and the children are worried about their parents’ marriage. They want their father to resume his weekly visits. Paige and Toby have discovered a duck’s nest full of eggs down by the water. Toby, who loves playing Snakes and Ladders, is sure that he saw a cobra sneaking up on the nest. Paige knows that there are no cobras in Muskoka and that her brother’s eyesight is dreadful. Nevertheless, she humours him, agreeing to help keep an eye on the nest in case the snake returns. In the meantime, Paige learns of plans to cut down her favourite tree. The giant oak is growing on the farm beside her cottage. Paige’s grandfather originally owned both pieces of land. Upon his death, Paige’s mother sold the farm, but Paige still enjoys relaxing in the tree fort. When the farm’s new owner decides to take the tree down, he calls Larry. Larry is an unsavoury lout who beats his wife and daughter. Coincidentally, Paige and Toby meet Larry’s daughter, Janine, and her boyfriend, Billy. Billy works for Larry and is attracted to Paige, despite their age difference and his commitment to Janine. After a brief and fairly one-sided flirtation with Paige, Billy runs away with Janine who finds her father’s abuse intolerable. When Larry arrives to take down the tree, Paige refuses to leave the fort. Unobserved, Toby races off to check the duck eggs. Everything comes to a head just as Paige’s father finally shows up: Larry attempts to drag Paige from the tree during a thunderstorm, and Paige’s mother realizes that Toby is missing. The day ends with Paige falling from the tree and breaking her leg, Larry killed by lightning, and Toby killed by a rare rattlesnake. Paige’s parents patch up their marriage and by the following Christmas, Paige – though still suffering through an occasional bad night – is happily settled in grade ten.

     Author Shaun Smith uses language beautifully, paints vivid scenes, and builds the tension wonderfully in this coming-of-age story. The theme of Snakes & Ladders is evident throughout the novel, and, like the game, the story often slides backwards, through flashbacks, then moves forward again. For instance, from the first page (where Paige sees Toby running across the field towards her) to page thirty-five (when Toby finally reaches her), Paige’s family history, the discovery of the duck’s nest, and much more, is told in a series of flashbacks. The novel is written in the past tense, and the end result of using so many flashbacks, for this reader, was occasional confusion as to the sequence of events.

     The story has a third-person narrator, and events are viewed from Paige’s perspective for most of the novel. However, the point of view does occasionally shift, even to the rattler that eventually kills Toby. Paige is a well-rounded protagonist, but more inner dialogue and physical clues as to her feelings would have made her more engaging earlier in the story. Secondary characters are simply, but convincingly, sketched.

     Snakes & Ladders has an ominous feel from the beginning, and there are a number of instances that foreshadow disaster, as per the following:

As [Toby] ran, frantically criss-crossing the line of the trail, he seemed unstoppable. Dressed in a red T-shirt, and with his mop of orange hair, he resembled a wild little flame following an erratic line of fuel to its source.

     Despite the foreshadowing, this reader found the conclusion to the novel neither satisfying nor plausible. Toby’s death becomes a morality lesson: do what your mother says, or else. It's a shocking and unnecessary incident to toss in so near the story's resolution. Paige is suddenly forced to deal with far greater issues than she faced at the onset. One would think her indirect but significant part in the deaths of Larry and Toby would cause her more trouble than an occasional nightmare just four months later.

     With its many plot threads and numerous flashbacks, Snakes & Ladders will probably appeal only to strong readers.

Recommended with reservations.

Karen Rankin is a Toronto, ON, teacher and writer of children’s stories.

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

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