________________ CM . . . . Volume XII Number 1 . . . .September 2, 2005


Breath of the Dragon.

Diane Juttner Perrault.
Winnipeg, MB: Great Plains, 2005.
203 pp., pbk., $16.95.
ISBN 1-894283-54-6.

Subject Headings:
Adolescence—Juvenile fiction.
MAturation (Psychology)—Juvenile ficiton.
Family—Juvenile fiction.

Grades 8-11 / Ages 14-17.

Review by Darleen Golke.

*** /4



"This has been a week from Hell. Really. Three nights ago, or maybe two, I'm all confused now. Anyway, Ian and I took out the new canoe, the one Dad's been working on all winter. Remember? You saw it at Christmas?

Well, we took it out because we got sick of waiting for Dad. Stupid, I know. But Dad seemed to be stalling, like he never wanted to put that canoe into the water, so Ian and I snuck out. That was the night Mom took Dad into Winnipeg.

Anyway, we got caught in a sudden storm and we lost it. Now the canoe is gone and the sculpture is broken and I'm responsible. Don't you see Myles? Dad has worked on that sculpture forever. The Circle of Life is his tribute to this family. Every summer, he drags it down to the beach and every fall, we bring it up and put it inside the cottage for the winter. I would rather have broken anything else, my arm, a leg, anything other than the Circle. I've gone and ruined everything. I'm so stupid. And for what? Why? And worse, yet, what am I going to do about the canoe? Dad will kill me. He really will."

"That a tough one," said Myles. His voice was deliberately slow and steady. He tried to be reassuring.

"I was supposed to wait," mutter Kris. "Dad and I were going to take out the canoe together. Ian, too. It was supposed to be a celebration and now it's just a mess. How can I replace it, Myles? I can't. Not ever."

"Quit the melodramatics, Kris. Dad isn't an ogre." Awkwardly, he put an arm around her shoulder and gave her a little hug. "You're forgetting," he said. "Dad will probably say that life is chancy and full of accidental things. You know what he's like. That this is not important."


Almost 16, Krisjana Anderson spends the summer with her family at Matlock Beach on Lake Winnipeg, MB. With typical teen self-absorption, impatience, moodiness, and unpredictability, she struggles to balance her desires against her fear and anger at the changes caused by her father's critical heart condition. The excerpt from this coming of age novel neatly demonstrates Kris's melodramatic style as she recounts the misadventures that she desperately wants to keep secret from their parents. When Dad experiences chest pains, Mom rushes him to a Winnipeg hospital, and Kris agrees to Ian's returning to the city while she remains at the cottage, ostensibly to host her older half-brother, Myles, arriving for his annual visit. Actually she stays because she hopes her 19-year-old neighbour, Ted the hunk, will finally notice how she has grown up, how she has "blossomed over the winter." "Maybe," she gushes, "he would kiss [me] this summer." Ted's interests extend far beyond kissing as he gentles Kris along until she almost succumbs to his charming persuasions. Myles, on the other hand, whom she has often resented, proves an ally and a friend, calming her melodramatics and offering quiet support.

     Against the backdrop of Lake Winnipeg, Kris's summer adventures unfold.

Kris needed the lake. She needed to spend time watching its spectacular beauty and raw energy. She needed to be in it, riding the waves, diving in, feeling the pulse of this big, fresh water ocean. The horizon on the other side of the lake was just a thin pencil line. Or some days, it was a total blend of sky and water and she could see forever. The closest she ever came to heaven was lying on her back, floating, arms outstretched, feeling the waves cradling her head, feeling the sun on her face.

     Kris, struggling with the realization that her father, a successful artist, might die, admits "firing pots was the only time she felt at ease with Dad anymore." She shares his passion for pottery and helps fire pieces in the Raku kiln, a "kind of low-fire pottery." Raku, Kris explains, means "both completeness and harmony," elements sadly missing from her present situation. Dad points "to the wave of red-hot flames swirling around the pots. The pieces were glowing, like lanterns. 'See the breath of the dragon, licking those pots with its tongue? See the ones ready to come out, spheres of fire?'"

     After Dad suffers another heart attack, Kris finally acknowledges the severity of his illness, details of which have been kept secret from her. "All the remnants of childhood disappeared;" she "could never take Dad's health for granted," she concludes. "Life was precarious, a dance along the edge of a precipice. The key was not to look down, not look back, but keep looking straight ahead." When Dad comes home, he seems to accept his illness, something he had refused to do before; he quits smoking, eats healthy foods, moderates his activities, takes his medication, and generally demonstrates good behaviour. Mom, on the other hand, is "pretty much a basket case" and is "oblivious to a lot of things; what was going on with Ted, how grandma meddled and scolded her all the time and, of course, Krisjana's own worries about Dad," and she has turned into "this pale, wisp of a person who survived on tea and toast and Tylenol Three."

     Kris struggles not only with family issues and changes, but also with her infatuation for Ted who blithely strings her along and uses her at his convenience. Although Kris recognizes the dangers, she gravitates to Ted's fire as to the Raku kiln's flames, hoping she won't get burned. With everything at home revolving around Dad's illness, Kris enjoys considerable freedom to pursue her obsession with Ted that culminates in near rape. As she runs from him, "she [can] imagine [Ted's] breath, hot, burning; his tongue flicking out, wild with anger, licking the back of her neck. Like fire, like the breath of the dragon, his breath [is] dangerous and unpredictable."

     Like many first novels, Breath of the Dragon does more telling than showing and incorporates a plethora of teen issues. However, Perrault presents a compelling tale of a teen's attempts to cope with her anxiety about her father's illness as well as with peer pressure to indulge in drugs and alcohol, with changing relationships, with new friends, with a manipulative and predatory boyfriend, and with date rape. An engaging and realistic protagonist, Kris matures as she muddles through her problems, but in typical teen fashion, her focus remains on herself and how outside events impact her personal whims and fancies. Perrault credits her daughter, a "terrific resource," for providing "insight into the heart and mind of teen-age girls." The secondary characters act as a foil for Kris and contribute to plot, theme and character development. Although some editing lapses interrupt the flow of the narrative, rich descriptions of the Lake Winnipeg landscape will resonate with readers familiar with the area and intrigue the uninitiated. Motifs of the all-encompassing lake, the dragon's breath, and "secrets" run throughout the suitably paced prose. Teens who have experienced the serious illness of a loved one will especially empathize with Kris's plight and with the pressures and conflicts she faces daily.


Darleen Golke, a librarian between assignments, lives in Abbotsford, BC.

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

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