CM . . .
. Volume XIX Number 39. . . .June 7, 2013
Kim Firmston’s Touch opens in a familiar world. We’re at a Calgary high school, inside the head of a disengaged, somewhat hostile teenager. Ethan walks us through the steps he is taking to hack into the school’s computer system - D2L. “…Desire2Learn. I don’t know why they call it that,” Ethan tells us. “I have no desire to learn. At least not at school.” Ethan sits back and relishes the impact of the computer virus he has just launched. While teachers and students gape helplessly at their computer screens, “a tiny sheep appears and lumbers its way along the lines of text, stopping every few seconds to munch, baa, and delete a letter e...” Ethan misses out on the credit for “fixing the problem”, but, in a revealing self-reflection, he tells us, “I can live with not being the hero, because when Dad sees the hacker boards tonight, he’ll know how awesome I am.” Ethan’s thirst for his father’s attention and respect is what drives the action of this high interest/low vocabulary novel from Lorimer publishers.
Something about Ethan’s father raises our hackles. We already know that he wrote the code for the virus Ethan imbedded in the school system’s computers. And we know that he coached Ethan on how to prevent being caught – very unorthodox father behaviour. But what really rankles is Ethan’s exaggerated hero-like worship of his father. All of Ethan’s motivation, all of his justifications, and all of his thinking seem to stem from his father’s nefarious influence. Thankfully, Firmston lives up to our hopes and delivers a superbly nuanced and complicated character in Ethan’s father.
It doesn’t take long for the reader to recognize the kind of a person Ethan’s father is. His advice to Ethan about how to win the school’s robotics competition includes everything from the use of intimidation tactics, to stealing information, to using Ethan’s girlfriend. In a telling, creepy hint about his true nature, he tells Ethan, “A pretty girl can always get a guy to show her his plans.” Quite naturally, the son is unable to see the father for who he is. He knows that he wants his father’s respect, and he thinks that trying to be like him is the way to get it. But there is so much in the way of gaining his father’s respect. Ethan is confused and frustrated that his younger step-sister, Haley, gets all the parental attention, even though she acts out all the time.
Firmston’s adeptly creates a realistic family scenario wherein a sexual predator manages to operate under the very noses of the rest of the victim’s family. While Hayley’s mother blindly laughs about never being able to “say no to that man”, Hayley cuts her arms and destroys her childhood toys. Meanwhile, Ethan tries to cope with his girlfriend and best friend problems by using the same manipulative strategies his father has used to control everyone around him. Of course, this is doomed, and just as Ethan’s father’s crimes against his stepdaughter emerge, Ethan’s life outside of the family begins to crumble.
A lot happens in a very short period of time in this novel. However, what makes Touch successful is that the events are driven by the characters’ personalities. Ethan’s pathetic attempts to be like his father, a man he ultimately learns is both a master manipulator and a monster, are genuinely sad. As a reader, it is hard not to feel gratitude to Firmston for providing Ethan the opportunity to redeem himself by using the very same technical skills his father has used to manipulate others.
This novel also covers a lot of territory thematically: our capacity for ignoring the obvious when we become too self involved; the power of love to blind us; the courage it takes to confront evil - especially when it is close at hand; and the ethical use of technology are just a few of the ideas explored here.
All of this is done in some 150 accessible pages. While there are moments of clunky, perhaps not perfectly tuned dialogue, readers looking for a fast-moving, realistic story will be well satisfied with Touch.
Charlotte Duggan is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg, MB, high school.
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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.