________________ CM . . . . Volume XV Number 5. . . .October 24, 2008


The Girl in the Backseat.

Norma Charles.
Vancouver, BC: Ronsdale Press, 2008.
183 pp., pbk., $10.95.
ISBN 978-1-55380-056-9.

Subject Headings:
Runaway Teenagers-Juvenile fiction.
Voyages and travels-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 7-9 / Ages 12-14.

Review by Lori Giles-Smith.

**½ /4



She tossed and wiggled around trying to find a more comfortable spot on the crowded backseat. Her stomach was so empty it actually gurgled.

One thing about living in the commune with all her brothers and sisters and step-mothers, there was always enough food. It wasn't fancy, but it was tasty and plentiful. They had three big meals a day which she helped prepare. She and Ellie, one of her half-sisters, had been on potato duty last month and they had to peel mountains of potatoes every night. She remembered how she and Ellie had giggled, and how Big Bad Bertha had scolded them.

"Kitchen work is serious work. The devil finds work for idle hands. Get busy now, girls. No more fooling."

Toby wasn't used to this empty hollow feeling of hunger. But she wasn't sorry for an instant that she had run away from the commune. The prospect of the elders' plans for her was too terrible to think about for even a minute.


The Girl in the Backseat begins in British Columbia when Minerva, the oldest child of a blended family, finds out she is accepted to attend the University of Manitoba. Plans are quickly made for the entire family, composed of a Jamaican woman and her two children, Minerva and Jacob, and a British man and his two sons, to drive from British Columbia to Manitoba to drop Minerva off at school. Jacob is unhappy with the prospect of making such a long journey with his two younger step-brothers. He grudgingly goes along with the plan when he realizes the step-brothers will travel with the adults in the family van while he and his sister travel behind them in the Mini Cooper.

     On the first night of the road trip, the family stays near a religious commune where they have a brief interaction with the children who live there. The next morning, as they settle into another day of driving, Jacob and Minerva are shocked to find a young girl hiding in the backseat of their car. The stowaway explains she is running away from the commune and desperately needs to reach her aunt in Winnipeg. This is the only way she can escape the horrible plans her father has for her when she turns 14 next month. Toby pleads with them to let her hide in the backseat of the Mini until they reach Manitoba. While Jacob is uncomfortable with keeping this secret from his mother, he and his sister agree to hide the girl. Stopping frequently to take in the local sites and attractions, Jacob and Minerva are constantly vigilant in keeping Toby safe from harm and hidden from the rest of their family.

     Norma Charles tells the story of The Girl in the Backseat in the third person from the point of view of Jacob, a brooding 16-year-old forced to travel to Manitoba with his quirky step-family, and Toby, a 13-year-old escaping from her home on a religious commune. As the story switches from Jacob to Toby, Charles attempts to show readers how this uneasy situation impacts both teenagers who have such drastically different backgrounds.

     A subplot in the story revolves around Jacob's uneasiness with his new family. While there is no particular resentment towards his step-father and brothers, Jacob is often uncomfortable when strangers question the families' makeup. He also finds it difficult to identify with his step-family's odd ways. This family dynamic is juxtaposed against that of Toby's family where multiple wives and children are the norm. In a strange way, Charles makes readers equally sympathetic towards both children as readers hope one will embrace his new family and the other escape the dangers of her own.

     Unfortunately, the dialogue is frequently stilted which results in a story that sometimes lacks in depth. For instance, upon finding a stranger in the backseat of their car, Jacob and Minerva do not even pull over to the side of the road to consider the situation. With very little explanation from their stowaway or consideration of potential consequences, Jacob and Minerva continue on their journey. On such a long road trip, the trio could have spent hours discussing the wisdom of their decision or planning Toby's future safety, but the characters have only brief conversations scattered throughout the book on these topics. While Jacob does fret over the situation while travelling across the four provinces, he thinks of little else than his mother's anger if their secret is revealed.

     The Girl in the Backseat often reads as more of a promotional guide for western Canadian tourism than a novel. Much of the book focuses on descriptions of the various attractions the family takes in throughout British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba without much plot development along the way. For some readers, this will make for slow reading, but it could also appeal to others who have also visited or wish to visit such sites as Radium Hot Springs, the West Edmonton Mall or the Royal Tyrell Museum.

     The Girl in the Backseat does have a compelling premise. The idea of a young girl's escaping a religious cult where she is to marry an older man at the age of 14 will be enough to grab most young readers' attention. However, due to her weak dialogue and slow plot development, Charles is less effective at holding that interest as the story unfolds. Some readers will stick with this story and enjoy all of the details of this unusual trip while others will quickly tire of the journey.


Lori Giles-Smith is an Assistant Librarian at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, MB.

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

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