CM . . .
. Volume XIV Number 12 . . . .February 8, 2008
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.
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.
Karen Rankin is a Toronto, ON, writer and teacher.
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