________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 14. . . .March 6, 2009


Back. (Orca Soundings).

Norah McClintock.
Victoria, BC: Orca, 2009.
93 pp., pbk. & hc., $9.95 (pbk.), $16.95 (lib. bdg.).
ISBN 978-1-55143-989-1 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-55143-991-4 (lib. bdg.).

Grades 7 and up / Ages 12 and up.

Review by Thom Knutson.

**** /4

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.



They all say that it's not right that Jojo only got five years, out in two, for taking away from Eden everything that makes a life worth living.

Ardell has been saying the same thing a lot, ever since we got word that Jojo was coming back. Another thing Ardell has been saying a lot: he's not afraid of Jojo. And I bet he isn't. First of all, Ardell has hate in his heart, and hate takes the fear out of people and replaces it with a thirst for vengeance. Second, Ardell hasn't been wasting his time. While everyone else has been breathing easier and probably hoping never to set eyes on Jojo again, Ardell has been applying himself to the study of martial arts. He's been bulking up too. His muscles are bigger than Jojo's. It's almost as if Ardell has been wishing the opposite of everyone else. Everyone else wants peace and quiet, which means no Jojo. Ardell, though, he's hungry. He wants Jojo. He wants him bad, and now that he's back, Ardell is watching him. Everyone else is steering clear. They're wondering who Jojo will go after. They keep their eyes down the way people do when they come cross a big dog they don't know. They won't look that dog in the eye because they know that the dog will see that as a challenge, and then, before they can even think of backing away, they'll be in a fight they can't win.

For a couple of days, everyone holds their breath. For the same couple of days, Jojo doesn't make a move. Then, I guess, Ardell decides he can't wait any longer.


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:

Someone opens the door, and [Jojo] goes inside. After that only after that people come off their porches and into the street and start talking.

     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.

      The setting is critical to the story, a single street that establishes both a physical and psychological barrier. Mobility is not an option for most of the residents, compelling them to acknowledge the challenges around them. The lack of privacy, and the inability to avoid others and their problems, becomes a thread that ultimately binds the community together. Consequently, as the drama builds, its violent resolution will impact everyone who lives on that street.

      Back is a lean, tightly constructed narrative that squeezes an already apprehensive situation to the brink. Like the thick heat of summer before the expected thunder storm, it is not a question of 'if,' but rather 'when' and 'how powerful.' Once this storm passes, it will be up to the reader to decide what the aftermath really is.

      Back is sure to satisfy Norah McClintock fans as well as teens looking for an authentic urban experience in a well-told, accessible story. It is also an excellent choice for read-aloud.

Highly Recommended.

Thom Knutson is the Youth Services Coordinator at Saskatoon Public Library in Saskatoon, SK.

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

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