CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 18 . . . . April 27, 2007
When his dad dies, Peter Weir thinks that his world has fallen apart. However, the death is just the beginning of Peter’s experience with conflicting worlds. As he rummages through his deceased father’s desk, he unearths an unknown piece of his past. As a result, he starts running. Peter runs, at first, to life on the streets in another city. Then, he begins a different kind of escape: he disappears into his own visions of white, named Runnerland, for which he creates a vivid landscape. The edges of reality become blurred, however, as Peter is ensnared in the world of his mind.
Runnerland, the first young adult novel by John Burns, is an edgy tale of a teenaged boy who struggles to locate his identity. However, this is no everyday coming-of-age story: Peter’s sense of self is abruptly shattered by his discovery of his adoption papers. As he experiments with different ways of knowing himself, consequently, he asks probing questions about the nature of self-identity: “What is a person, anyway? The home he comes from and the people he calls parents? Or the clothes he wears, the music he listens to, the games he plays?” In despair at the lack of answers to his uncertainties, he isolates himself in a new city, rather than hunt down his biological parents –– who, incidentally, do not become an issue in this story –– in order to uncover who he, Peter Weir, really is. The reader is encouraged to wonder along with Peter: Are you the sum of the parts of your parents? Or can you create the person you want to be?
Both the well-paced plot and the interesting characters are strengths in Runnerland. The plot hums, as Peter attempts, first, to find his way among a gang of urchins, and then tries to track his consciousness through his visions. Notably, the strength of the character development parallels the strength of the plot. Peter is a finely drawn teenaged boy, with an irreverent voice, who is hooked on girls and art. He changes from a typical adolescent boy to someone permanently changed by his loss of identity. However, the powerful language used to describe his devastation never becomes trite: “Peter didn’t want easier. He didn’t want things to get better or become routine. He wanted chaos, cataclysmic change, dramatic upheavals. He wanted the sky to go black, the seas to boil, blood to rain down from the heavens.” His character, as a result, pulsates with life. The combination of a strong plot and appealing characters provides the reader with a sense of the harshness of life on the streets, and the subsequent appeal of fantasy as a coping mechanism.
Throughout the narrative, in fact, realism blends with fantasy to the extent that the reader may wonder if, interestingly, Peter’s nemesis/caregiver, Dekman, is really a separate entity or if he is a doppelgänger. Their dark showdown in Peter’s Edenic mind is highly charged and unusual. Peter does save himself from Dekman’s clutches and return to the physical world, but he does not become reunited with a loving family. Although he finds his way from his fantasies to reality, he does so in an unconventional way, much to the dismay of his mother - and to the relief of the reader, who may have expected a trite, storybook ending.
This book is the complete package for reluctant readers: it contains well-drawn characters, an interesting plot, smart writing, and attractive cover art. Runnerland’s realism –– despite the curious absence of expletives in such a harsh environment –– and its ironic sense of humour will appeal to a broad cross-section of young adult readers.
Pam Klassen-Dueck is a Middle Years teacher in Altona, MB.
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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.