________________ CM . . . . Volume XI Number 7 . . . . November 26, 2004


Playing Chicken. [Former Title: Death Ride.] (New Series Canada).

Paul Kropp. Re-illustrated by Matt Melanson.
Toronto, ON. H.I.P. Books, 1986/2003.
88 pp., pbk., $9.95.
ISBN 0-9731237-8-8.

Subject Headings:
Drunk driving - Juvenile fiction.
Peer pressure - Juvenile fiction.
Guilt - Juvenile fiction.

Grades 9-12 / Ages 14-17.

Review by Gillian Noonan.

*** /4


"Nothing's ever a big deal with you, Josh," she sighed, wiping her hands. "I think maybe you better stay home tonight and work on your homework. You can't afford another report card like the last one."

"But Ma..."

“I don't want to talk about it. I think it's about time you started to do some work instead of just giving you teachers a hard time. I want you to stay in."

We finished dinner in silence. The clock on the wall was at 5:30 when I ate the last piece of so-called food on my plate.

"Now get going on your school work, Josh," she told me. "When I get home, I want to see a pile of homework on the table."

"No problem, " I said, as if I were really going to do what she wanted. But that was a lie. I wasn't going to stay home just because she told me to. And I wasn't going to join Dylan and Liz down at the library. I was heading for the Bluffs. I'd find Brandon and the gang up there. And then maybe, for a change, nobody would tell me what I was supposed to do with my life.


Learning what advice to follow is central to the theme of Paul Kropp's hi-lo novel, Playing Chicken. Previously published in 1986 under the title, Death Ride, this gritty piece of realistic fiction depicts the poor choices 15-year-old Josh makes over a one month period and the tragic consequences of these choices. Josh is at odds with his world. His parents are wrapped up in their restaurant. Dylan and Liz are good friends but are not cool enough for him. Dylan, who is also Josh's cousin, has had a lifetime of back problems and surgeries which have left him small for his age with a limp. Liz is a hard worker who is very sure of herself. At this moment in time, Josh, who has been regularly goofing off in school, finds them boring. His school's so-called cool crowd are much more appealing, and they are interested in Josh’s being part of their group. The "cool crowd" are given the parental seal of approval by Josh's mom because the lead boy, Brandon, is the son of a judge. Of course, that fact accounts for little in Brandon's character as he is the instigator in the stupid, dangerous activities in which Josh finds himself embroiled. Very quickly, Josh becomes involved with a group of kids who have no parental supervision; have ready access to cars, alcohol, and drugs; and who do things like drive a Cadillac off a cliff for an adult who wants to make an insurance claim. Josh, who was supposedly joining the group so that nobody would tell him how to live, willingly listens to this group of kids. The result is trying to outrun a train with a carload of kids including his cousin, Dylan.

     Being dared to do something is often too real a part of life for teenagers. In Josh's case, the dares he accepts led to tragic consequences. There is little reflection on Josh's part in this short novel. As he watches Brandon's buddy, Guzzo, trash a Cadillac and jump out before the car goes over the cliff, the only comments from Josh are: "’So Guzzo's gonna drive it over a cliff? He'll get killed,’ I said. I was getting sober just by thinking about it." That dare is quickly followed by stealing a SUV the next night when his father's car is unavailable and then outrunning a police car while drinking and popping pills. Josh realized that he had crossed some kind of important line and that going back wasn't a probability. The other characters never comment on their actions or the consequences. There is no conversation between Josh and his more stable friends, Liz and Dylan. No one shows any sense of responsibility for their actions in this novel. All of the adults are very absent. The novel's concluding conversation between a hospitalized Josh who cannot walk even though there is no medical cause preventing him, and his friend Liz tries to morally justify Josh's actions, particularly his role in the deaths of three teenagers including Dylan. Liz persuades Josh to walk by telling him to have the guts to get on with his life and save lives by talking about how drugs, alcohol and driving don't mix. While all of these situations could be very real for some teens, this novel deals with them all superficially. Josh is able to be hungover in school and at home without anyone noticing. Nothing happens when they steal the car. No one ever says that maybe we shouldn't do this. This book should be about responsibility for one's actions and accepting the consequences; instead, tragedy is easily accepted as long as one has the guts to get on with your life.

     As a high interest low vocabulary novel, this story may prove interesting to high school students, and, with directed discussion, it could be a useful instructional aid in learning to say no to drugs. It is not appropriate for younger readers in elementary school.

Recommended with Reservations.

Gillian Martin Noonan is a teacher living in Old Perlican, NL.

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

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