CM . . .
. Volume XV Number 14. . . .March 6, 2009
Jojo Benn is trouble. From the moment he returns to the neighbourhood, there is an unmistakable tension among the residents. Jojo has spent two years in jail for beating Eden Withrow with a crowbar, leaving him in a vegetative state in a local hospital. Eden had been the first in his family hoping to attend college, and when his parents make the decision to remove him from life support and let him die, Eden's younger brother, Ardell, swears to make Jojo pay. As Ardell sits on the porch of his parents' house watching Jojo's coming and going at his mother's house across the street, his hatred towards Jojo escalates. Yet he also turns his anger towards Shana, the young woman Eden tried to protect from Jojo when she was pregnant with Jojo's baby. Ardell and his friends try to isolate Jojo, warning local store owners not to serve him, but eventually Ardell can no longer contain his rage. Living in such close proximity, the residents cannot help but see the situation that is developing, yet they keep their distance out of fear.
Told from the viewpoint of an unidentified narrator, Norah McClintock's Back takes the reader into the heart of a single urban street, where life is characterized by poverty, broken families, and conflict. The houses are tightly packed, with tiny front yards and porches. Like all of the other residents, the narrator knows what's going on, but is unwilling to get involved:
The reader observes through the narrator's eyes, sensing the growing unease as the conflict between Jojo and Ardell intensifies and a violent climax becomes inevitable.
Yet the conflict does not overwhelm the story's characters. Indeed the reader develops sympathy for individuals, partly owing to the circumstances in which they live. Ardell's family has been shattered by the attack on Eden, yet his parents fear the pent-up anger Ardell holds towards Jojo will lead to their losing their other son as well. Jojo is understood as a violent troublemaker with no feelings for others, yet there are glimpses of change as he discovers himself as a new father, and as his mother fights cancer. Ironically, it is the narrator who is most devoid of character development, a reflection of the neutrality shared by many in the neighbourhood who choose to avoid direct confrontation with the likes of Jojo. The reader senses that characters strike out not only at one another, but at their social circumstances as well.
Thom Knutson is the Youth Services Coordinator at Saskatoon Public Library in Saskatoon, SK.
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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.