CM . . .
. Volume XV Number 5. . . .October 24, 2008
A Thousand Shades of Blue is certainly an apt title for this very realistic, character-driven young adult novel that explores head on the multilayered emotional and volatile depths of modern-day teen angst and fragile family dynamics aboard a 36-foot sailboat heading for and cruising in the Bahamas.
At the outset, 16-year-old Rachel, the first person narrator/story teller, makes it abundantly clear to the reader (her confidant) just how she feels about spending "a whole freaking year" of so-called "quality time" on a supposed dream-come-true sailing trip with her always quarrelling and hypocritical parents, Laura and Mitch, and her 12-year-old "loser" brother, Tim. Rachel describes her mom as "denial in action" and wonders if she is living on a different planet. She calls her dad, the "kiddie shrink" and the "king of clichés" who is obsessed with family mission statements, schedules, and inspirational speeches. She is sure he figures, "I'm going to be a pregnant drug-addicted drop-out by my seventeenth birthday." As for her brother, he always seems to be "off in his head" thinking about the Second World War or about the conflict in the Middle East and totally oblivious to the fact that the sails need trimming or the boat is off course. With utmost exasperation she concedes, "four people who could barely stand each other on a good day moving onto a small boat together? I would have laughed if it wasn't my life that was getting turned upside down." And it's not just being trapped on a sailboat with her "happy sit-com" family that frustrates Rachel. She is devastated that she has to be apart from her best friend Jen for so long and that she will be missing out on all the Grade 11 high school fun. But most of all she worries (feels guilt?) about abandoning her brain-damaged older sister Emma who now lives in a group home.
The family trip to reconnect and bond gets launched one evening in late August from the Canadian shores of Lake Ontario (Hamilton) "slogging" through the Erie Canal system to New York ("boring"), then on down the Intra-Coastal Waterway ("it took months") to Florida and finally crossing to Nassau ("hellish") and arriving in the Bahamas in early December. After a sojourn in Georgetown on Great Exuma Island, a test of family seamanship arises when, with winds shifting to the west, plans change from heading to Calabash Bay on Long Island to seeking a protected anchorage in Joe Sound which is accessible only through a narrow entrance channel with jagged and sharp rocks on either side. Racing against time and the elements, and in an effort to guide their boat in, Tim and Rachel try to find the bluest, deepest water for the safest passage Shared Dreams needs five feet of water to stay afloat). "There are a thousand shades of blue," says Rachel. "Anyone can tell the difference between water that's two feet deep and water that's ten feet deep, but trying to tell the difference between the subtle shades of turquoise that differentiate four feet and six feet is a bit more difficult,"..….which, in actual fact, is not unlike trying to figure out her family. With the waves lifting the boat up and flinging it back down, Shared Dreams hits the rocks and ends up with a cracked rudder. Limping back to Georgetown for repairs, the sail boat gets put in dry dock and the opportunity presents itself for Rachel's family to soul-search and repair its own cracked veneer.
Victoria, BC, author Robin Stevenson does not shy away from real life issues in this, her sixth book for children and teens. Here, in Georgetown, she adds to the apparent maelstrom already in her characters' lives by forcing them to make decisions about extramarital affairs, first love, smoking pot, drinking and ultimately finding self. At the same time, she weaves in a few characters who provide stability and put things on a more even keel, especially for Rachel. There's Col, the rich 25-year-old pilot, a kind of drifter and "player" who steals her heart, respects her and makes her feel good about herself. There is 19-year old Becca, the dreadlocked bleached blonde who is the book's voice of reason and common sense and Rachel's sounding board. Her father was killed in a car accident (he was drunk), and she tells Rachel that he may have had his problems but she would give anything to have him back. She knows Rachel is "pissed off" at her dad but "couldn't you…I don't know, just give him a chance?" Through these friendships and relationships, Rachel finds the courage and maturity to confront her mother about the affair she is having with Will, the host of the Georgetown VHF cruisers net and who, with his wife Sheila, has become friends of Laura and Mitch. Rachel and Tim actually see Laura passionately kissing Will on his boat; he's naked and "has his hand on her ass." Perhaps one of the most poignant scenes in the book is when mother and daughter finally speak honestly, openly and even lovingly to each other about the "unravelling" of their family.
As Shared Dreams is lowered back into the water, her cracked rudder repaired and repainted ("so smoothly that you'd never know she'd hit the rocks") and now seaworthy, ready to move on to the next leg of the journey, similarly fresh beginnings and resolutions are hinted at for Rachel and her family. Rachel's dream of a normal life becoming a reality resonates in her final words, "blue sky, blue water and hope. Right now, in this moment, it is enough."
A Thousand Shades of Blue is a thought-provoking read for teens and parents alike who may see something of themselves in Rachel and her family. With so many pressures and stresses placed on families these days (such as coping with and caring for a disabled child like Rachel's sister) this is a timely novel. It is a well-written, well-paced, easy to read and conveys the message that there is no such thing as a perfect parent. Young readers will like that!
The characters are well-developed and credible. Their portrayal through the heart and mind of a believable, likeable and spunky protagonist, who has a sense of humour, values and a good head on her shoulders, is very effective. Stevenson's conversational style is a great hook and her mastery of teen dialogue and teen angst is engaging and easily endears the reader to Rachel and her situation.
There is a geography lesson to be had for those who may be intrigued with and fascinated by the inland waterways of Canada and the United States. Readers may want to refer to a map to follow Shared Dreams' voyage
Not to be overlooked is Janice Kun's multi-media cover artwork which gives the book pick-up appeal.
Lois Brymer is the National Chair, The Children's Literature Roundtables of Canada Information Book Award Committee, a West Vancouver Memorial Library volunteer and a graduate (November 2005) of the University of British Columbia's Master of Arts in Children's Literature Program.
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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.