CM . . .
. Volume XIV Number 5 . . . . October 26, 2007
Apart begins with one boy's reply to an ad that had been placed in the Globe and Mail, an ad requesting information on a man with a blond stripe in his hair, a snake tattoo and an Electroglide motorcycle. James Charles MacSween, known as Sween by his friends, sends a letter in response, stating that he might know the whereabouts of the man in question...but encouraging the person who is looking for him to reconsider.
Thus begins an intense, soul-searching correspondence between two teens on opposite sides of the country. Jessica Doig lives in Matagouche, NB, and is trying to locate her runaway father in the hopes that he'll come home and things can become semi-normal once again. Since Gunner (her father) ran off with another woman, Jessica's mother has fallen apart and Jessica has been burdened with the care of her autistic younger brother, Timmy. With her grade 12 school year about to begin, she is desperately afraid that, if things don't improve at home, she will be unable to maintain the grades that she needs to earn a scholarship that will enable her to pursue her dreams of university. Then Gunner does come home, and Jessica bitterly regrets ever having wished for his return.
Meanwhile, Sween is in a very different sort of family situation but facing tremendous emotional turmoil of his own. Although he comes from a wealthy Saskatchewan family, his relationship with his parents is no less tempestuous than Jessica's. As he confesses in his letters to her, he has a noted attitude problem, and he and his father, in particular, don't see eye to eye. Ultimately, Sween finds himself kicked out of home and school, living in his uncle's cabin in the wilderness and wondering what to do with himself and his life. After suffering from somewhat of an emotional breakdown, he pulls himself together and gets a job at a golf course as well as a new place to live.
While these two very different teens wrestle with their own personal demons, they bare their souls to one another on paper, and they provide each other with a lifeline to hold on to during hard times. When Sween hops on his bike and heads for the Maritimes, however, the result is not at all what either of them had hoped, or expected, it would be.
From the very first page of this novel-in-letters, the reader is immediately immersed in the tumultuous lives of Sween and Jessica. The format of the book (alternating letters) allows one to see into the minds and hearts of both characters, to enter fully into their triumphs, their fears, their insecurities and the evolving friendship that grows out of their correspondence. While my initial reaction to the letters was to think hmm...how many teens actually speak as Sween and Jessica do here - so thoughtfully, so eloquently, so philosophically - I then realized this: while they may not always speak this way, many would express themselves in writing that way! And that is both the essence of this book and what makes it such a memorable and outstanding read - the fact that it so adroitly depicts two teens trying to make sense of their worlds and their own places in those worlds, in a way that is both comfortable and safe for them. The authors very successfully capture the candor and vulnerability that these two teens display in each letter as they open up to one another. Through their written communications they find a freedom to be themselves and to discover themselves as they go along, and they draw strength, satisfaction and encouragement from one another. These letters provide both Jessica and Sween with an opportunity to explore deeply personal thoughts and feelings in writing, and they also realistically portray the drama and emotional intensity of their young lives, filled as they are with a certain self-absorption and inward-looking. The concluding letters also make a very compelling statement about seeing one's world through another's eyes. This is a thoughtful, engaging narrative that will undoubtedly speak to more mature young adult readers.
Lisa Doucet is a children's bookseller at Woozles in Halifax, NS.
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