CM . . .
. Volume XV Number 10. . . .January 9, 2009
More Than Bread: A Novel. (Spoonful Fiction).
Montreal, PQ: Smith, Bonappétit & Son, 2008.
205 pp., pbk., $12.95.
Teenagers-Political activity-Juvenile fiction.
Maturation (Psychology)-Juvenile fiction.
Grades 7 and up / Ages 12 and up.
Review by Ruth Latta.
After more than two months of listening to my father's careful Mr. Candidate voice, it was refreshing to listen to the Judge who got so animated at times that he'd slam his palms down on the table. ...
The whole time we stood in the food line, people came up to Judge, usually to thank him for some bit of help and advice. I was impressed. I realized that while he might seem lazy in some ways, like by not having a job or by not helping out much at the warehouse earlier that day, Judge
had skills I hadn't considered before.
Nora Rock's first novel, More Than Bread, seems at first to be a cautionary tale about a gullible youth being led into peril by an unscrupulous, charismatic figure. In fact, it's about middle class prejudice and paranoia toward the underclass. The novel opens in a police station where 15-year-old Tom Aylesworth is being questioned in the company of his lawyer mother. Tom and Alex, private school pals, were caught up in a series of unfortunate events. After snowboarding, Tom has his new expensive boots, which he had taken off for a moment, stolen from under his nose. Alex spied the culprit, pursued the teen, and got into an altercation in which the other youth fell and hurt his head. Whether or not Alex is charged with assault may depend on Tom's account of events.
But no. As it turns out, Alex's wealthy father not only convinces the cops not to lay charges but also contacts influential people and gets the young thief kicked out of his alternative school. Tom also suffers consequences from the incident. His father, a fiftyish professor on sabbatical, convinces Tom's mother, who works long hours, that their son should stay with him and his live-in girlfriend. Tom, who is not consulted, isn't sure he wants to live there full-time: "When I was a little kid and I was with my dad, no matter what we were doing he always seemed to be looking over his shoulder... thinking about other stuff."
When Tom's father decides to run for office as a Liberal candidate, Tom is alienated by too much campaign work and too many happy family photos. This lonely child of divorce seems ripe for seduction by someone or something. At the campaign launch, a man in black jeans and T shirt engages him in conversation. "Judge," whose real name is Ian Kelty, identifies himself as a political activist with "Bread Equity."
Flattered, Tom is drawn to Judge who looks "hard" and "weathered" with eyes that are "bright and piercing." "Walking around being a socialist doesn't get anything done," Tom tells him. Bread Equity, the organization in which he is involved, was started by a father and son from India, two Ph.D.s who couldn't find work in Canada and fell into poverty. The existing food bank system seemed to them too dependent on business goodwill and reluctant to play an advocacy role on behalf of their clients. Bread Equity provides food, like a food bank, but expects recipients to pay for it by working in advocacy activities.
Further family complications push Tom into Judge's sphere, allowing skillful author Nora Rock to sow seeds of doubts about Judge's character. He claims he was thrown out of law school for an ethical stand, and now he doesn't hold a job and lives with his sister and her two children in a basement apartment. This situation may change when Krista and her boyfriend form a household, so Tom opposes their plans. When Judge's niece, Brandi, starts going out with Tom, she tells him that Judge deliberately tried to recruit him so as to embarrass his father in the election campaign.
Even so, Tom's growing affection for Brandi and the tensions in his home life keep him in contact with Judge. With a light hand, the author shows the flaws and foibles of Tom's middle class family and friends. When his dad's much younger girlfriend discovers that she is pregnant, the partners are amazed that this could happen to them. After they adjust, Tom's father muses to Tom that he plans to be a more involved parent with the new baby, a commendable resolution, but one bound to breed resentment in Tom. Meanwhile, Alex, Tom's prep school friend, performs farcical community service, eschews a summer job, and makes derogatory remarks about Brandi.
The author then presents incidents which put Judge and his associates in a more positive light. At a late night dinner in a church basement, with leftover food donated from restaurants and open mike entertainment, Tom feels nervous around the street people, but admires Judge who is known to almost everyone and has a "knack for helping."
Raised by a single father who slid into alcoholism and death after a job loss in middle age, Judge had to quit law school for lack of money. When his sister, Krista, gave birth at age 15 to a premature baby (Brandi), he helped her as best he could, getting involved in Bread Equity out of necessity.
Bread Equity's "maneuvers" in a provincial park sound at first sound paramilitary and threatening, but they turn out to be a training session in non-violent demonstration, with tips on avoiding injury.
Near the end of the novel, the inconsistencies of our society are articulated by Krista. As a premature newborn, Brandi had thousands of dollars spent on her in hospital, automatically, because the medical system "assumes each baby is worth it." But only in that sort of exceptional situation does a child of the poor ever have much public money spent on it.
At the beginning of the novel, the author quotes a line from "To Be A Man," by Boston: "How can you be a man, 'til you see beyond the life you live." After a dramatic climax, Tom's horizons have been widened permanently. Author Nora Rock's skill in leading the reader gradually through a shift in perspective makes More than Bread a pleasant surprise.
Ruth Latta's most recent novel, An Amethyst Remembrance (Ottawa, Baico, 2008) deals indirectly with social issues.
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