________________ CM . . . . Volume XI Number 1 . . . . September 3, 2004


The Beckoners.

Carrie Mac.
Victoria, BC: Orca, 2004.
217 pp., cloth, $16.95.
ISBN 1-55143-309-5.

Grades 9-12 / Ages 14-17.

Review by Joan Marshall.

**** /4

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.


"You think Zoe gives a shit what I do to you?" Lindsay leaned over so she was looking straight down at Dog's dandruffy head. "You think anyone does?"

Jazz grabbed Dog's ears and made her shake her head.

"Zoe? Do you give a shit what I do to Dog?"

Zoe could barely hear her for the gusty winds battering her at the top of a perilous peak, cliffs dropping off on either side. At the bottom of one was the cruel backstabbing place the Beckoners infested; a place crawling with nasty-ass comebacks and vindictive she-devils. At the bottom of the other was the equally terrible wasteland of the bullied. If she said yes, she'd fall there, and while they were both horrible, one was certainly safer than the other.

"No," Zoe said miserably, looking at her feet.

Dog looked away when Zoe said that. Even after the first dig, she'd been willing to give Zoe another chance, she wasn't a real Beckoner, not yet, but there she was sinking deeper into that bitch place, that pick-on-the-little-guy place, that ugly and competitive bullying place.

In one of his Simon-says moments, Simon had told Zoe about the day of the fire alarm, the day the Beckoners made Dog eat all those dog biscuits. Now Zoe understood why Simon hadn't done anything to stop them, why no one had. It was all about survival. Everyone had to look out for themselves. Dog was just really, really bad at it.

Why is it that some students have V for "victim" engraved on their foreheads? They seem unable to cope with the bullies who are always there. Most teenagers can hold bullies at bay by using self-deprecating humour or the protection of a group of friends or outright retaliatory brute force. It's the serious, non-violent loners whom bullies can smell a mile away, who suffer vicious mental and physical abuse in silence and wearily watch their lives slip away. And what of those who are complicit, those who know what's going on but do not act? What of them?

     The Beckoners is a raw, gripping examination of bullying in a small-town, Canadian high school. Zoe, her little sister Cassy, and her mother, Alice move from Prince George ("full of 4X4ing, hockey addicted, sweat-drenched guys whose sole goal in life was to get on at the mill and save up for a big screen TV") to Abbotsford ("that smelled like cow shit, thanks to the surrounding farms"). Dysfunctional Alice, who can barely cope with her alcoholism and the men in and out of her life, essentially leaves Cassy to Zoe to bring up. Zoe makes a bad decision and joins the Beckoners, a clique of stunningly vicious girls led by Beck, whose own father physically abuses her. Although she is also befriended by the gay couple of Simon and Teo, and actually falls in love with Leaf, the editor of the school's paper, Zoe slowly sinks into the sticky morass of belonging to the Beckoners. Zoe limps from the searingly painful branding used as an initiation to the heart stopping anxiety of never knowing for sure when she might be physically hurt or scathingly humiliated in public. The clique's main victim, April, is addressed as "Dog" and treated by them like an animal. At Beck's 16th birthday party, Zoe witnesses a rape, and she realizes she can't be part of the Beckoners any more. When the Beckoners hang April in effigy in her own backyard, Zoe understands that she and April will never be left alone in peace. In a scene right from the Reena Virk murder, April is attacked and beaten when she least expects it. When the clique members hang April's dog from a tree in her yard, Zoe and her friends, Leaf, Teo and Simon, contrive a trick that has Beck and her followers confess their sins to the police.

     There are Zoe's in every high school in Canada, girls who hope to be film directors, who like to write, who observe their world through a cynical, sarcastic lens ground from parental neglect, girls who know how critical it is to fit in, girls who are tough on the outside and terrified on the inside. As the school year progresses, Zoe grows to find true love, solid friendship and real compassion. She learns to act, when she could remain silent.

     Although Zoe's character is the compelling centre of this dramatic story, the secondary characters are all strongly drawn. The long-suffering Alice, author of her own misfortunes, lives dramatically from relationship to relationship, having never learned to be an adult. Some of the most telling scenes are those between Alice and Harris, Cassy's father, where they lash out at each other and reach out for each other at the same time. Simon, a gay teen who has come out and has a boyfriend, Teo, is the supportive friend Zoe needs. With his articulate, witty voice, he even manages to diffuse volatile, difficult school scenes in which April is the victim. Beck, herself a victim, hurts others to deal with her own pain. Although she does truly like Zoe, she can only cope with her anger and anxiety by controlling others, and so she will never be a true friend to anyone.

     In this small-town high school, most of the teachers are competent and watchful, although the one who isn't leaves a hole large enough for Beck's bullying to drive right through. The family situations are now typical, not unusual. Leaf lives with his sister and her young son while his father has moved back up north. April's mother runs a day care. Zoe's mother heads up a homeless shelter but really lives for the drama of unrequited love. None of the adults, except Leaf's sister, really knows what's going on until it's almost too late, at which point they all do what they can, from comforting April to feeding the crowd of supporters.

     Mac's style is tight and concise: no words are wasted. There are beautiful, lyrical sections when Zoe dreams of the Beckoners drowning, reflects on her future and watches Beck outside the police station. The dialogue is contemporary and reflects the bravado of teenagers' talk. This includes using swear words to shock, frighten and put down each other. The intended audience will see themselves in this novel and embrace it.

     The Beckoners will be one of those sleeper novels passed from hand to hand by teenagers who empathize with Zoe's fear, Simon's courage and April's suffering. It will probably disappear from your library collections, the ultimate approval rating. Buy your five copies now and keep one behind the counter. Your April's will need it.

Highly Recommended.

Joan Marshall is the teacher-librarian at Fort Richmond Collegiate, Winnipeg, MB.

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

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