CM . . .
. Volume XV Number 18. . . .May 1, 2009
Pieces of Me.
Charlotte Gingras. Translated by Susan Ouriou.
Toronto, ON: Kids Can Press, 2009.
144 pp., pbk. & hc., $8.95 (pbk.), $18.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-55453-432-6 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-55453-242-1 (hc.).
Teenage girls-Juvenile fiction.
Parent and teenager-Juvenile fiction.
Grades 9-12 / Ages 14-17.
Review by Joan Marshall.
A dragonfly landed on the page. Another trout jumped, sploosh! Slow ripples appeared on the water. Then crashing from the other side of the lake. I looked up.
He was huge, with gigantic antlers. He stared at me.
There in the middle of my rowboat in the middle of Lac Perdu in my red lumber jacket, I held my breath. The roads of Russia had disappeared. Neither of us was afraid. Not me, not him. We looked at each other without moving, in silence.
The moose lowered his head to drink, I didn't budge. He was so beautiful.
Behind me, the screen door slammed. The thunder voice raced over the lake. She shouted words I couldn't hear. Nothing but the echo to hurt my eardrums. I covered my ears with my hands. He had already slipped away with a rustling of ferns and branches.
She stopped yelling. I waited a bit longer. I uncovered my ears and turned around slowly. I stood in the middle of the rowboat, my legs spread wide, raised my arms to either side of me and stared her straight in the eye a hundred meters away.
Because of her, he had run away. I hated her so much.
I began to rock the boat, shifting my weight from one foot to the other. Very slowly at first. Then harder. And harder still. Water splashed into the rowboat. The whole lake was shaken by my waves.
The old couple appeared onshore. They too watched. No one moved while I, well anchored in the middle of Lac Perdu, swayed my hips and made my boat dance. I made waves. Then the boat cracked.
In this heartrending novel, 15-year-old Mira struggles to cope with her absent father and her mentally-ill mother. The black cloud of her depression is lifted by a new friend, Cath, while the support of a compassionate art teacher draws out Mira's artistic talent. Although the sudden, accidental death of her father shocks Mira to the core, the school counsellor helps her to re-assemble the pieces of her life and to find the strength to cope with her fragile mother.
With its large font and short chapters that consist of scenes from Mira's present interspersed with her memories, this book has a hi-lo look. However, the language, in the present tense, is urgent, immediate, reflecting Mira's tentative, hesitant approach to the world. Her mother's tense anxiety and obsessive, delusional and paranoid behaviour show in her sharp accusations and her necessity of keeping Mira close and safe. Paule, the counsellor, patiently waits for Mira to talk; she works gently and with respect. Her words drop quietly and eventually soothe Mira's soul. The dialogue between the teenagers is realistic and witty.
Mira's voice is that of a well-read but socially spooked teenager. When she's nervous, she fills the silences with chatter about the plants and animals she loves. Inside, she is drowning in depression and anger, caught between her love for her parents and the impossibility that they will ever be able to care for her. Cath's friendship is like water that makes a plant bloom, and slowly, slowly Mira opens up to life.
Secondary characters, especially the two teachers, are rich and full; incidental comments portray their own lives as in a few words Gingras makes these people real and interesting. It's very refreshing to see teachers as the supportive people they usually are instead of the villains as they are often drawn.
Pieces of Me is a translation by Susan Ouriou of La Liberté. Connais pas..., which won a 1999 Governor General's Literary Award. It does not have the uneasy, stilting feel of a poor translation. Rather, the tone feels French Canadian, reinforcing the mosquito-laden camp scenes, the half-basement apartment on Amélanchiers, the snow and the icy streets, the ski hill and the references to Canadian mammals like moose, polar bear and snow geese.
Gingras and Ouriou present mental illness matter-of-factly, illuminating its unpredictable, spine tightening fear, its rages and hopelessness. For teenagers whose lives are intimately tied to mental illness, this book will reconfirm their experiences and provide hope that they are not alone. For other students, it will open doors of understanding, and one would hope, help to create a more compassionate national belief system that will lead to better treatment for mental illness.
Students will rush through this tingling lurch through high school, eager to discover if Mira can assemble the pieces of her life into a ragged whole with which she can face the future.
Joan Marshall is a Winnipeg, MB, bookseller.
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