CM . . . . Volume XV Number 21. . . .June 12, 2009.
Hellís Hotel. (SideStreets). [Former title: Dark End of Dream Street.]
Toronto, ON: James Lorimer, 2008.
220 pp., pbk. & hc., $9.95 (pbk.) $16.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-55277-022-1 (pbk.) ISBN 978-1-55277-038-2 (hc.).
Homeless youth-Canada-Juvenile fiction
Street youth-Canada-Juvenile fiction
Children of single parents-Juvenile fiction
Grades 9-12 / Ages 14-17.
Review by Philip Bravo.
During the week, Tara hardly ever saw her parents. That wasnít unusual. Her father worked long hours at the hospital. They are in the midst of government cutbacks, and he said it took everything in his power to come up with creative ways to keep the place in operation. Jenn (sic) knew that her father was a good guy, a man who liked to help people. He really cared. Sometimes, she thought he cared too much - about the hospital and the people in it. In her life he had become a ghost.
Hey, but she was Miss Independent. In the eyes of other kids, she had the freedom, she had it made.
Her mom had decided to take up photography. She gave up some of her volunteer work and tagging along with her husband on business dinners. She had always been home when Tara was in elementary school, her mother said she was ďspreading her wings a little.Ē So the walls of the house were covered with dozens of framed black and white photographs of super close-ups of spider webs and dew on tree branches. She had a particularly haunting photo of Hellís Hotel taken in the day when the building looked stark, eerie, dangerous.
Jennís stories of life at ďthe hotelĒ were quite bizarre. Of course, sometimes Jenn didnít remember everything that happened. Those were the bad nights when she was hanging with the dopers or the crackheads. Looking at the photographs of Hellís Hotel always made Tara think about how close to the edge some people lived.
Written by the MYRCA award-winning author Lesley Choyce, Hellís Hotel is a gritty, realistic, disturbing and yet, hopeful coming of age story. The title, Hellís Hotel, refers to an abandoned building in downtown Halifax where street kids congregate. Originally published in 1994 as Dark End of Dream Street, the novel describes the events which led to a young womanís overnight stay at Hellís Hotel and her return to the safety of her home. The novelís main theme is the fragility and transformation of the protagonistís web of relationships that sustain her well-being and sense of self.
A friendship between two high school students with very different lives forms the core of the narrative. Tara is the perfect student, teen, and daughter with a picture perfect suburban life while Jenn is the quintessential misunderstood outsider, delinquent and street kid. But appearances are often deceiving. Taraís and Jennís lives intersect and influence one another in different ways. Taraís identity, for example, is informed by her role as Jennís self-appointed protector and mentor, but, as Taraís relationship with her parents, boyfriend and her employer deteriorate, she decides to run away from her suburban nightmare. Suddenly, Tara finds herself depending on Jennís street smart knowledge which strains their relationship. Following a terrifying overnight stay at the hotel, Tara, exhausted, malnourished, humiliated, dirty and frightened comes to the realization that her suburban nightmare is preferable to the reality of struggling to live on the streets. Eventually, Tara returns home to restore her relationship with her father, her employer and finally, Jenn. Through the experience, Tara (by extension the reader) acquires a better understanding of the challenges that the homeless face on a daily basis and the value of loyalty that mitigate the worst aspects of life in the suburbs or the city.
Hellís Hotel is a well-written, fast paced, entertaining book with interesting twists and turns. The first person narrative allows the reader to inhabit Taraís thoughts and empathize with her confusion, loneliness, and angst. Arguably, some readers may consider the novelís minor characters, such as Jennís abusive boyfriend, to be crude stereotypes; the main characters, however, are complex, sympathetic and realistic. Although, the language, pacing and realistic characters are well suited to teens interested in reading ďedgyĒ stories, I wonder if readers will find it ďold fashioned.Ē The book does not mention common aspects of contemporary life, such as IPods, cell phones, social networking sites and blogs which play a dominant role in a contemporary teenís everyday life. Teachers, librarians, parents and other interested parties may need to encourage young adult readers to see beyond the absence of these ubiquitous 21st century facts of life to read and appreciate this book.
Philip Bravo is a librarian living in Winnipeg, MB.
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