CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 33. . . .April 30, 2010.
The Middle Ground. (Rapid Reads).
Victoria, BC: Raven Books/Orca, 2010.
119 pp., pbk., $9.95.
Grades 10 and up / Ages 16 and up.
Review by Darleen Golke.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
“Oh my god!” yelped Christina.
I looked up. The man was leaning over the counter, one hand grasping the over-sized rosary Christina wore around her neck.
The other held a gun to her chest.
“Empty the register and I won’t shoot, please, miss. I don’t want to hurt anyone,” he said very clearly, using the same tone of voice you might use to say I’d also like a piece of pie.
Instead of quietly backing toward the door or trying to dial 9-1-1 on my cell phone –– I kept it turned off and buried under all my purse crap –– I walked around the counter and stood beside Christina. Maybe it was the look of complete terror on her face. Or the fact that I had held her as a squirming pink newborn. Or the whimper she made as she dropped the book and fumbled with the cash register.
He let go of her necklace, and placed both hands on the small pistol.
“Don’t hurt her,” I heard myself saying. “She’s just a girl. Whole life ahead of her.”
“Shut up, lady, and get back around to this side of the counter, all right? Don’t push any buttons. Just give me the money, and I’ll be on my way.” He tapped his foot, like he was impatiently waiting at the bank on any non-felony errand.
Raven Books, an imprint of Orca Book Publishers, introduces “Rapid Reads,” “a new line of short, ‘easy-read’ books for adult readers,” written by published authors. The publishers “believe there is a market for well-written, well-told novels that can be read in one sitting” and that will appeal to “those struggling with literacy challenges.”
“Boring old Missy Turner” begins her day as usual, not realizing a trio of events will transform the ordinary to the bizarre. As her 15-year-old son heads off to camp that morning, she alternates between telling herself she will be glad to have time to herself and worrying about him. When she arrives at her job of ten years, the owner shocks her with the news that he is selling out to a developer and she is unemployed. Her sister urges her to “try something new for once,” and, ironically, to find “some adventure.” Missy returns home to share coffee with her husband, her brain “positively on fire with the possibilities.” However, she “couldn’t have been more surprised” if she had found “aliens sitting at the table” when she discovers her husband in the kitchen with big-breasted Lydia from next door in his lap.
Missy, after her tears subside, heads for the local coffee shop and admires a broad-shouldered man who looks like Jude Law until he suddenly pulls a gun on the clerk, Missy’s young cousin Christina, and demands the contents of the register. Rather than dialing 911, Missy tries to diffuse the situation, gets the would-be robber to release Christina, and helps him escape after he begs, “You need to help me. I have kids!” Missy later explains her subsequent irrational behavior as “everything that had once mattered in my life had disappeared in the last four hours or so.” Not only does she give the would-be-robber her car and arrange an exchange later, but she gives the cops a dramatic story about what happened. Even realizing that once she gets in his car to return it to him, she is “no longer a victim, but an accomplice,” she follows through, inevitably.
The “thrill of having a secret and knowing that Dale was likely worried,” combined with anger and hurt, compel her to meet and exchange cars with Roger, the name she finds on his car registration. Compounding her initial lack of judgment, she joins him for breakfast the next morning, falls for his hard-luck tale, and ends up in a Motel 6 room with a “relatively dangerous man” who makes “her feel like a lit match.” When he proposes they head for New York City, she demurs, but eventually concurs. Missy’s euphoric bubble bursts when they stop for gas a few hours later and Roger pulls a gun on another young clerk and demands money. Although he obviously expects Missy to help, this time she dials 911 and tries to persuade him to give up: “Keep the gun on me, and let everyone go.” He reluctantly complies. When the cops arrive, he initially lowers the gun, then shoots Missy before the police subdue and arrest him. After she recovers, Missy receives a sentence of “probation, community service, and mandatory counseling” for her involvement, comes home to put her life and marriage back in order, and copes with the gossip about “running off with a criminal and getting arrested.” Ultimately, her son’s anticipated return from camp forces her to “focus on our kid’s happiness, something much less complicated than adult happiness.”
Whittall, author of five books, accepted Raven’s challenge and produced a fast-paced, easy-to-read novel with a protagonist whose ordinary life receives a triple whammy that temporarily throws her off course. Within the restrictions of the “Rapid Read” format, the novel is plot rather than character driven, easy-to-read, high-interest, and short, about a third the length of a regular novel. Fortunately Whittall’s prose demonstrates vitality and humour as she includes the minutiae of daily life among the bizarre events in Missy’s adventure. Presented as a therapeutic notebook in which Missy attempts to understand her erratic behavior, The Middle Ground investigates outcomes when an individual’s comfortable routines encounter unexpected jolts that result in questionable judgment and inappropriate actions. Although the novel incorporates adult language and subjects like marital infidelity, crime, and violence, readers with literacy challenges and some teens, accustomed to watching modern television and movies, might find this an entertaining read.
Darleen Golke writes from her home in Abbotsford, BC.
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