CM . . .
. Volume XI Number 5 . . . . October 29, 2004
But then, ten weeks ago, at seven a.m. the Friday before the start of the Canada Day weekend, everything changed. Mel, on his way to teach summer school, was exiting the Country Corner Coffee Shop with his usual pre-class coffee and cinnamon-raisin bagel when Jerry Smythe, a local hell-raiser, rounded the aforementioned country corner, jumped the curb and ran Mel over. Jerry, who'd been driving home from a night of partying in the city, who'd been driving with a suspended license following a string of prior DWI's, was thrown in jail to await trial. Mel, once he emerged from a three-week coma, was sent to do indefinite time at the Eastern Ontario Rehabilitation Centre in nearby Ottawa. His cuts and fractures healed well enough, but a closed head injury left Mel with the language and problem-solving abilities of a five-year old and the tasks of having to relearn how to walk, feed himself and use the toilet independently. Aunt George and the doctors were optimistic Mel would gain back most of his skills, but I'd have been happy if my father remembered I was his kid, not just the girl he'd learned to call 'Tee' because he couldn't pronounce 'Theresa' anymore what with the speech impediment and all.
In Heather Waldorf's first YA novel, Fighting the Current, she tackles the central developmental task of adolescence, that task being self-definition. Answers to the paired questions, "Who am I?" and "What do I really feel?" become pivotal as the book's two central adolescents seek to transform themselves from dependent children into independent adults. Unlike most YA titles which target the younger end of the teen spectrum, FIGHTING THE CURRENT will more likely find its principal readership amongst students, especially girls, in the higher grades.
Theresa Stanford, aka Tee, is a 17-year-old high school senior who lives in the small community of North Creek, Ontario, about 45 minutes from Ottawa. Her parents, Mel, a biology instructor at the local community college, and Lucy, an aerobics instructor, had divorced three years ago after Mel came home to find Lucy committing adultery. Lucy had then moved to Toronto where Tee, a "Daddy's-little-girl," reluctantly visited her mother one weekend a month. Tee's life had undergone another major change towards the end of her junior year when Mel, while walking to work, was struck by a car driven by a drunk. Though Mel suffered numerous injuries, the most devastating was one to his head which left him not only with the language and problem-solving skills of a five year-old but also unable to walk, dress, feed himself or use a bathroom independently. Following her father's accident, Tee had angrily rejected Lucy's demand that she move to Toronto, electing instead to live just outside North Creek with her maternal Aunt Georgina, a wealthy best-selling writer of mysteries, so as to be closer to her father. Because the doctors cannot promise that Mel will ever regain his previous mental or physical abilities, Tee, who wants to be a zoologist, contemplates modifying her plans to study at UBC and attend a local university instead in order to continue to attend to Mel's needs.
As Tee's final year of public school begins, tomboyish Tee, who is also an academic achiever, finds herself even more isolated at school, especially since her only boyfriend ever had dumped her prior to Mel's accident because Tee, a virgin, would not have sex. Into Tee's life steps Ethan Stinson, also 17, who, with his family, had recently moved into the area from Newfoundland. Classmates and almost neighbours, the two develop a friendship which offers the potential of becoming a romance but for the fact that Ethan still has a girlfriend, Tina, in Newfoundland. Besides both being "brains," Tee and Ethan share having to cope with a loved one's facing an unknown future. Part of the Stinson family by adoption following his parents' accidental deaths, Ethan has a 12-year-old sister, Ellie, who is ill with Cystic Fibrosis. Motivated by Ellie's fatal disease, Ethan intends to study genetics at university with the goal of finding a cure for CF.
From September to the end of December, life throws many curves, some good and some bad, at the pair of adolescents. On the negative side, Aunt Georgina is killed by an arsonist and Tee must go to live with her mother. Positively, just prior to Thanksgiving, Mel recovers his memory and is allowed to go home before Christmas. With the return of Mel's memory also comes his realization that he still loves Lucy and that his actions during their marriage had contributed to Lucy's committing adultery. He re-proposes, and Lucy accepts. Tee has ambiguous feelings about her parents' reconciliation, especially because she does not see a place for herself. Also positive is the end of Ethan's long distance romance, and Tee becomes the new "woman" in Ethan's life. However, a near death experience causes Tee to reconsider who she is and where she is going. In terms of the voyage of life, Tee realizes that she has just been drifting with the current and doing what others, especially her father and now perhaps Ethan, have wanted her to do. About to leave high school, Tee recognizes that she will have to fight against the current if she is to become her own person, and a cost of that decision, though possibly not a permanent one, is her having to leave Ethan behind on New Year's Day as she leaves to study at UBC.
Readers who are hopeless romantics will probably be disappointed by the very real possibility that Tee and Ethan may never reconnect and consequently not live "happily-ever-after." However, such an ending was absolutely required if Waldorf was to remain faithful to her book's theme of "being true to one's real self," a theme she nondidactically illustrates a number of times, including via Mel and Lucy's marriage. The two had met at university when Mel, a grad student, was TA'ing Lucy's first year biology class. An unplanned pregnancy led to their marriage and Lucy's abandoning her life plans. Though the two loved each other, that emotion alone could not compensate for Lucy's betrayal of self which, in turn, became a factor in their marital problems. Tina, Ethan's Newfoundland girlfriend, had completely bought into the idea popular among many teens that marriage, children, mortgage, etc., automatically follow immediately after high school. Ethan, confused by the "Does sex equal love?" equation, likely would have gone with the flow had his family not relocated to Ontario. A meaty read, Fighting the Current will leave thoughtful readers reviewing their own futures and asking, "Who am I?" and "What do I really feel?"
Dave Jenkinson teaches courses in adolescent literature at the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba.
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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.