1987 Notable Canadian Young Adult Fiction
By Sarah Ellis
Margaret Buffie's Who is Frances Rain? is a book that gave me a surprise. It begins in the conventional young adult first-person mode. Surly fifteen-year-old Elizabeth is travelling with her family to her grandmother's cabin in rural Manitoba. On the way she recounts her dislike of her mother, her new stepfather, her older brother and life in general. Whine, whine, whine. All very realistic, of course, but not a voice that you want to live with for a whole novel.
Elizabeth changes her outlook quite literally when she canoes over to Rain Island and there discovers, in an overgrown ruined cabin, a pair of antique spectacles. When she looks through them she sees the island in the 1920s. Scenes she views include the strong and reclusive Frances Rain, a young girl, and the ominous toad-faced visitor. Elizabeth gradually realizes that she is observing a drama of love, manipulation and independence.
The time-travel conventions are handled very delicately. Elizabeth's visions of the past are by no means mechanical but depend on her own psychological state. Sometimes she sees the cabin in the twenties against a landscape of the eighties in a kind of double perspective that parallels her own increased depth of vision. As she researches the past her visions become clearer; as she becomes more emotionally linked to the characters on the island she herself becomes visible in the past. And finally, when it becomes evident that she has a role to play in the past, the characters come forward to the present to beg for her help. The time travel here is in both directions.
From the point of view of plot, this gradual accumulation of information and emotional connectedness creates superb tension, mystery and suspense. From the point of view of character, it is an original device to show how Elizabeth is coping with love, manipulation, and independence in her own life. The first-person whine of the opening chapters changes as her barriers of anger and stubbornness fall. We get to know the real person under the flippancy. At one point Elizabeth's hand is superimposed on that of Frances Rain's. Elizabeth says of the experience,
Growing into someone else is precisely what Elizabeth is doing: the universal experience of adolescence is given literal expression. This title was the winner of the Young Adult Canadian Book Award given by the Young Adult Caucus of the Saskatchewan Library Association.
The much recognized novel False Fare is an example of new fantasy. Katz wandered afar in her previous books but in this one she comes home. Young Laney McIntyre finds, in the bog close to her London, Ontario, home, an Iroquois false face mask. By unearthing this artifact she sparks a series of events whereby the ancient mythic power of Iroquois ritual and ceremony is unleashed in the everyday world.
This device of myth seeping or exploding into the rational world, using as an entrance our own duplicities and troubled relationships, is one that is a mark of contemporary fantasy writing for the young. Rare now is the wardrobe door or the rabbit hole. Instead, the supernatural co-exists with the real world.
Such an approach allows the writer a gritty, immediate creation of character. The conflicts of good and evil are simultaneously cosmic and domestic. In False Face Laney's alienation from her materialistic, judgemental mother, her conflicts with her sister, and her sorrow at her parents' divorce provide the weak place by which the power of the mask can emerge. Likewise, her schoolmate Tom's confusion about his dual Indian and European heritage allows a passage for ancient tragedy to be re-enacted. And it is entirely plausible. Katz is particularly effective in capturing the seriousness of family tension.
She is also powerful in her descriptions of the rituals of the Society of Faces that lie at the heart of the book. She writes in a strong clear style, avoiding pretension or melodrama. The words are simple and convincing:
In an author's note Katz tells of how an artifact in a museum of Indian archaeology gave her the idea for the book. The power of objects to evoke the cultures of the past is one that underlies much British juvenile fiction but has not been much explored by Canadian writers for young adults. False Face is a welcome book, not just for readers in Scandinavia and South America, who may see in it their first glimpse of Canada, but for our own young adults who may well see in it their first glimpse of the stories that live in our landscape. This title was a runner-up for the Young Adult Canadian Book Awards
Just when you think every possible YA plot has been done to death somebody comes up with a truly original idea. I don't mean those dotty, contrived "pit bull bites adolescent anorexic" stories. I mean a plot where a writer investigates a new point of view. Such a book is Me and Luke. We've had stories of adolescent mothers since the mid 1960s. But adolescent fathers have figured less frequently in the young adult novel. In this story of a seventeen-year-old boy who kidnaps his baby son from the hospital nursery, O'Hearn creates the most convincing teen-age boy that I've encountered in fiction in many years.
Matt Wilson is a decent, compassionate and determined young man. He is also aimless, lacking in judgement and sentimental. What makes these qualities coalesce into a three-dimensional person is what we learn of Matt's situation. With a disappeared dad and a remarried mother who doesn't care much about him, Matt has fallen between the cracks. He's one of those good kids cast on their own resources far too soon, in a world of high unemployment and urban alienation. This is more than a good and original plot. This is meeting a character in fiction that you immediately recognize from life. That is a satisfying experience.
Mary Razzell's Salmonberry Wine deals with the choice and first experiences of a career. As late as 1975 in the second edition of The Republic of Childhood (Oxford), Sheila Egoff included a section on career stories. But in recent years the world of work has been strangely absent from or peripheral to the major concerns of the YA novel. Mary Razzell puts work centre stage in this novel about a young woman's first few months in nurse's training.
Seventeen-year-old Sheila Brary moves from her small town home to begin training in a Vancouver hospital. Some of the familiar elements of the nurse story--shenanigans of dormitory life, the handsome intern--are here. But Sheila is no Cherry Ames, and the daily realities of hospital life are explicitly and grittily portrayed. Nursing is shown as exhausting, frustrating, messy and tragic work. Yet we sense the joy of Sheila's realization that she is in the right place.
The major moral predicament involves a young woman patient, pregnant and suffering from unexplained symptoms. Sheila, headstrong and compassionate, questions the diagnosis and treatment of this patient. But the doctor in charge is an arrogant bully whose position in the hospital hierarchy gives him immunity to criticism When the patient dies and Sheila discovers that the hospital administration is hiding the facts of an earlier botched operation she becomes depressed and cynical. She leaves the hospital and returns home.
Salmonberry Wine is a sequel to Snow Apples (Douglas & McIntyre, 1984) but stands well on its own. Razzell handles the technical challenge of a sequel very adroitly. References to the earlier book add resonance for those who have read it and an element of mystery and surprise for those who have not. Both books are sustaining and emotionally convincing young adult fare.
I would like to close by adding that I am encouraged by the increased number of Canadian publications in this past year in this genre. The book award committee gave consideration to some fifty titles. I certainly look forward to further development in literature for young adults in the coming years, and I encourage all of you to try to "tune in" to this growth.
Readers should be aware that native people in southwestern Ontario have serious objections to the depiction of Iroquois ritual and belief (specifically the use of sacred masks) in False Face. The following is a quote from Joanna Bedard, executive director of the Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford, Ont., which represents the Mississaugas of the New Credit, the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte, the Mohawks of Gibson, the Delaware Nation, the Oneidas of the Thames, and the Six Nations of the Grand River:
1987 Notable Canadian Young Adult Fiction
Buffie, Margaret. Who Is Frances Rain? Kids Can Press, 1987.
Katz, Welwyn Wilton. False Face. Groundwood Books, 1987.
O'Hearn, Audrey. Me and Luke. Groundwood Books, 1987.
Razzell, Mary. Salmonberry Wine. Douglas & McIntyre, 1987.
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