________________ CM . . . . Volume XIV Number 12 . . . .February 8, 2008


Pain & Wastings. (Orca Soundings).

Carrie Mac.
Victoria, BC: Orca, 2008.
122 pp., pbk., & hc., $9.95 (pbk.), $16.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-55143-904-4 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-55143-906-8 (hc.).

Grades 9-11 / Ages 14-16.

Review by Karen Rankin.

**** /4

Reviewed from Advance Review Copy.



A million and a half years later the ambulance shows up. [Police officer] Buttface is on his fifth piece of gum. He takes it out and flicks it into the bush before he waves the paramedics over.

"What do we got?" One of them drops an enormous first-aid kit dangerously close to my head.

I crane my neck to see who's talking. It's a girl paramedic, or woman, I guess. Good looking enough, but a little old. Fake blond with dark roots, hair pulled up in a ponytail. Tired lines around her eyes. A decent rack. She winks at me. "Looks like you had a run-in with [police dog] Smokey, huh?"

"What took you so long?" I writhe on the ground, my leg screaming with pain, my front soaking and cold, my wrists chafing against the cuffs. "You stop for donuts or something?" Everyone shuffles in closer and talks over me. Now all I can see are boots. Two cop pairs, shiny and buffed, and two paramedic pairs, scuffed up and dull. The cops are telling the paramedics their version of events. I am not surprised to hear that on the other side of the amusement park, six other cops are waiting for Harvir for when he finally decides to come down from the top of the roller coaster. I can hear him whooping and hollering in the distance. They probably think he's high, but he's just whacked out like that for real.

"Hello? Somebody get me the hell off the ground, please?"

"Oh, he said please." The girl paramedic squats. Her name tag catches a glint of light. Holly. "That's sweet."

The other three all go awwww, and then Buttface adds, "He's learned some manners in the last half hour." "Up you get." Holly grabs one of my arms, while her partner yanks on my other one. "We'll fix you up in the ambulance."


Ethan Kirby is an angry and volatile 16-year-old. When the police catch Ethan and a friend having some after-hours fun in an amusement park near the boys' group home, Ethan is bitten by a police dog. Coincidentally, Holly, one of the ambulance attendants, knew Ethan's mother. Holly takes a personal interest in Ethan's case and convinces his social worker and the police to let him off the standard punishment for the 'break and enter,' 'mischief,' etc. charges he has just incurred. In exchange, Ethan must agree to spend a total of 48 hours on ambulance duty with Holly and her partner. Although he does not want to discuss his mother with Holly, Ethan agrees to the ambulance duty.

     When Holly's "beat" turns out to be his old neighbourhood, "the notorious Downtown Eastside," Ethan is practically paralyzed at times by memories nightmares from the past. The streets around Main and Hastings 'Pain and Wastings' are full of "drugs and prostitutes and poverty and violence." The ambulance calls that Ethan attends over four 12-hour shifts continue to stir up disturbing memories. Between shifts, the reader is introduced to Ethan's house-mates. Other than Harvir his 'partner in crime' currently serving time in 'juvie' for the amusement park break-in Ethan doesn't usually have much to do with the group home youths; however, drug-addicted Kelly expresses interest in working as a paramedic and manages to get Ethan talking a little about his experiences. Over the course of Ethan's 48 hours with the ambulance, we learn amongst other things that his mother was a drug addict, a prostitute, and murdered when Ethan was six. By the end of his last shift, Ethan is ready to talk with Holly about his mother and her death. He is finally able to address his feelings of loss, pain, and fear. One gets the sense that, having dealt with his past, Ethan will be able to face the future with a lot more maturity and self-control. Author Carrie Mac's latest addition to Orca's 'hi-lo' "Soundings" series is a compelling read. In Pain & Wastings, Mac, herself a paramedic, has created a fast-moving and convincing plot. While cogently viewed from Ethan's perspective, his occasionally gruesome ambulance calls include intriguing, realistic detail. And Ethan comes across as a completely credible character. Although easily governed by his own hurt and anger, his decent and generous side is evident early in the story, as per the following passage.

"You'll probably just get time in juvie for being an ass." Marshall [the group home "babysitter"] takes a slow sip of his coffee. He pushes himself out of his chair and stands, clutching the mug to his bony chest. "The officer is coming by after school. With your social worker. Be here."

"My social worker?" I hesitate. "What's Chandra got to do with it?"

"Beats me." Marshall leaves the room with a shrug and a yawn. "Go to school. Please. I don't want to come pick you up for shoplifting somewhere because I really, really, really want to sleep."

Poor Marshall. I'm not being sarcastic either. I do feel sorry for him. He was up all night with Kelly, who came home tweaked right out. Harbor House policy says he's supposed to take her to the hospital when she's all methed up, but she'd been missing all day and half the night and he was just glad she came home. He's cool like that. Keeping us out of trouble when he can. As for Kelly, she's asleep upstairs. Finally.

     Ethan becomes an even more sympathetic character as his past is gradually revealed through flashbacks and his own musings. Secondary characters are also well drawn, especially given the limitations of the 'hi-lo' format. At the story's realistic yet satisfying conclusion, it looks as though there could even be hope for Kelly. It wasn't until some time after finishing the book that I realized how easily I had been persuaded to suspend credibility regarding the events surrounding Ethan's experience when his mother died further testament to Mac's captivating main character and excellently-paced plot.

Highly Recommended.

Karen Rankin is a Toronto, ON, writer and teacher.

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

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