________________ CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 6 . . . . October 9, 2009


The Present Tense of Prinny Murphy.

Jill MacLean.
Markham, ON: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2009.
160 pp., pbk., $11.95.
ISBN 978-1-55455-145-3.

Grades 4-8 / Ages 10-13.

Review by Gregory Bryan.

**** /4

Reviewed from Advance Reader Copy.


My problems with reading started back in grade one when Ma first hitched herself to Captain Morgan Rum. Tantrums. Blackouts. Puke. Flies buzzing around the food on the counter, dirty underwear piled on the washer. School should have been a haven, but it was like I was split in two—half of me home, terrified of what was going to happen next, the other half in the classroom with the red and blue desks, terrified of vowels and consonants.

Sometimes I was expected to stay home and look after Ma, especially when Da was off fishing. Sometimes, if she was screaming and yelling at Da, I'd stay in bed, huddled under the covers, and they'd never even notice I hadn't gone to school. Absenteeism was a word I learned young. I also learned to skulk in the back row of the class, pretending to be invisible.


Jill MacLean's The Present Tense of Prinny Murphy is a moving, engaging, troublesome book that middle school readers will find difficult to put down. The Present Tense of Prinny Murphy is the sequel to the 2008 novel, The Nine Lives of Travis Keating. As good as the first book was, the second instalment is even better. As hard-hitting as the first book was, the second one hits much harder. While the same characters continue to face many of the same problems, MacLean's writing remains fresh and engaging. Issues of bullying, family secrets, alcoholism, loneliness, and child abuse again form much of the framework for her novel and MacLean again handles these issues in a sensitive, skilful manner that at once is interesting and informative.

     Whereas The Nine Lives of Travis Keating was told from the first person perspective of Travis, in the second book, the story is told from the point of view of Travis' 12-year-old friend, Prinny Murphy. The female voice is likely to be less appealing to boys, but both boys and girls should read this book.

     At the book's start, Prinny's mother has been living with a sister for five months. Prinny's father evicted his wife from their home. Wilma Murphy's alcoholism has finally worn down Prinny's father, and so Prinny has been forced to assume many of the household duties previously attended to by her mother.

     The book moves along at a fast pace, but not so fast that the reader does not have time to develop feelings of empathy and sympathy for the characters. MacLean's skillful writing strikes the perfect balance between pushing the story ahead, yet providing spaces for reflection and thought. These spaces are constructed largely through the chapter breaks, with 27 chapters in all. Each of the chapters is individually titled. Despite being short, each chapter is also filled with detail and drama.

     The drama takes places in and around the small and remote coastal town of Ratchet, Newfoundland. Prinny, Travis and Hector are all in grade six, as is the attractive new arrival, Laice. Laice initially comes between Prinny and Travis, leaving Prinny to struggle with feelings of jealousy. Laice is "beautiful as a Barbie doll." She has "blond curls, dark blue eyes with long lashes, and flushed cheeks." Although Travis cannot help but notice Laice, MacLean's characters are realistically drawn, and Travis' attraction is not as simple as falling head over heels in love. Rather, Travis maintains his sensible head, and the tension that arises between him and Prinny is borne primarily of Prinny's insecurities. "A big part of being twelve is not knowing where you belong," Prinny says and, at least for a time, she is unsure of where she belongs in relation to Travis and Laice. In almost every aspect of her life, Prinny is uncertain. "The barrens when I'm on my own, that's easy." But everywhere else, Prinny is clouded by doubts. "Recess. The rink. The school bus. Anyplace there's kids..."

     One of the many places in which Prinny's life is a struggle is in reading class. Prinny receives remedial reading instruction from Mrs. Dooks who, for the most part, appears disinterested and unpleasant. But one day, a substitute teacher introduces Prinny to Virginia Wolff's free verse novel, Make Lemonade. "I never knew books could be like that," Prinny says, as she falls under the spell of Wolff's poetic text. MacLean does not pretend that Prinny's reading difficulties can be miraculously overcome in the blink of an eye but, with help and perseverance, Prinny's reading starts to improve. For Prinny, "loving the story makes all the difference in the world," and she starts to invest her energies into reading.

     While Travis continues to be bullied by Hud Quinn, Prinny is bullied by the Shrikes—Tate, Sigrid and Mel. Tate and Sigrid feign friendship, deceiving Prinny and getting her drunk. They then proceed to blackmail Prinny in a vicious, manipulative manner that is terribly unpleasant but, nonetheless, disturbingly believable.

     MacLean endows her characters with realistic, multi-layered depth and complexity. At once, for instance, Wilma Murphy fights a heroic battle against alcoholism, yet then disappoints with her relapses. At once, Hud Quinn is a heartless bully, yet Prinny then witnesses the gentle manner in which Hud attends to his young sister, Fleur.

     MacLean's dialogue rings true. Her pacing is faultless. She leads us through a series of highs and lows. Her writing seems to be without fault.

     I now expect (and HOPE) that MacLean will provide another insight into the Newfoundland coastal community of Ratchet—next time through the voice of Hector. I can't wait because MacLean is a powerful writer who leaves her readers with much to ponder.

Highly Recommended.

Gregory Bryan teaches children's literature in the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.

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

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