CM . . .
. Volume XI Number 9 . . . .January 7, 2005
This excellent novel was first published in 1980. Although it would now be considered historical fiction by any high school student, its riveting characterization and strong Newfoundland setting is as compelling today as it was 24 years ago.
Sixteen-year-old Chris and his insufferably perfect older sister, Jennifer, live with their mother and father is small-town Marten, Newfoundland. Chris's father is unemployed and has begun drinking too much while he waits for a job that never materializes. Finally he leaves for Alberta where he know he can get work, but not before his drinking disrupts the family and demoralizes Chris so much that he fails grade ten and begins to drink too much himself, losing his best friend in the process. Joining up with some older ne'er do wells, Chris is soon out of control and is charged with underage drinking and wilful property damage after windows are smashed at the school. Rev. Wheaton, his minister, offers him a junior counselor job at the church camp, and Chris eagerly takes him up on it. Unfortunately, even as he works so well with the young boys, Chris makes errors of judgement that nearly cause a child's death, and he is returned home in disgrace. However, Chris' father, now returned from Alberta, spends more time with him, his parents receive counseling, and Chris reconnects with his best friend and cheerfully sends his sister off to university. He contritely pleads guilty to the window smashing incident and receives a hefty fine. He meets the girl of his dreams and returns to school, determined to pass this time and get control of his life again.
Major hits the nail on the head in his development of Chris' character. Chris is easily led, easily angered by injustice and criticism, attracted to girls and sex and beer and pot (called dope). He is in the habit, as many teenage boys are, of swearing. He's also a church-goer who really does love his father and mother in spite of their shortcomings. He's very good with children and does know the difference between right and wrong. He grows over this tumultuous summer to see that life will go on despite his mistakes and that he can be forgiven and he is still loved. Jennifer is the perfect, driven first child, determined to get away from Marten by her high academic achievement, and she succeeds. Chris' mother, stuck in a marriage she is beginning to question, struggles to control Chris and has an affair with a lonely widower but ends up committing to her marriage. Chris' father, at first a stereotypical unemployed drunk, is gradually revealed as a man who does whatever he can to support his family. Even Rev. Wheaton reveals himself as a man struggling to help others and make decisions that will strengthen his faith community.
Major's style is effective: each character speaks, and the reader hears the same story from multiple points of view. Each of the characters reveals much about themselves and others, too. The characters speak in Newfoundland dialect, but each character's accent differs depending on their education and place in society. Jennifer leans carefully towards English while Chris and his parents use a lot of slang and dialect that today's readers will initially struggle with until they read a bit out loud.
The Newfoundland society of the late 1970's is brought clearly to light. Chris' mother has never been off the island. She can cook up a "scoff" for the men who go house to house drinking and dancing. The kids love to skidoo, and Christmas dinner is usually saltfish and potatoes. Chris and his friends listen to 8 track tapes and records. People go turr hunting and trout fishing, and, of course, some people have to leave the island to gain employment as the long promised fish cannery never is built.
This was an unusual, some would have said shocking, book in 1980. Today, it confirms what we acknowledge publicly about teenagers, parenting, marriage and the necessity of commitment when times are tough.
Joan Marshall is the teacher-librarian at Fort Richmond Collegiate in Winnipeg, MB.
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