CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 10. . . .November 5, 2010.
The Way it is.
Toronto, ON: Second Story Press, 2010.
282 pp., pbk., $11.95.
Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.
Review by Ruth Latta.
As he opened the passenger door, a beer bottle flew out of the darkness, smashing on the ground in front of the car.
"Hiyo Silver," a voice called, accompanied by hoots and laughter. Tony stood holding the door, staring into the darkness. Ellen began to back up before Tony had the passenger door closed. As they turned, the car lights raked across the laughing, jeering group sitting on the cars' fenders, beer bottles raised....
"I'm sorry, Tony," Ellen said. "He just started talking to me."...
"Drunken yahoo. I should have smashed him...I could've beaten him."
"Tony," said Ellen, as the sound of the men's laughter rang in her ears. "I didn't understand."
1967. San Francisco's Summer of Love. Draft card burnings and marches against the Vietnam War. Black Americans rioting in major cities; the change hoped-for during the civil rights era too long deferred.
Isolated/insulated in rural Northern Ontario, just coming of age, I remember watching the news and alternating between despair and excitement.
The fictional protagonist of Donalda Reid's novel, The Way It Is, seems to have been even more at a distance from the action and passion of 1967-8 than I was. Ellen Manery is 15 and determined to enter pre-med at the University of Toronto in a year's time. Meanwhile, she is in a special pilot project for gifted students in Vancouver. Occasionally, she attends cultural events with her parents, but her life revolves around her studies. She would like a friend, but she is set apart by both her academic prowess in maths and science and her height - almost six feet.
After a workaholic friend died, Ellen's banker father wants out of the rat race, and so her parents move to small town Salmon Arm, BC, to run a summer resort. The parentsí hope is that the move will make Ellen a more-rounded personality, and indeed, Ellen's life experience is broadened. On the school bus, she meets another outsider, Tony, one of the few First Nations students bent on finishing high school. Though their friendship proceeds slowly and cautiously, they eventually become confidantes, and he fills her in on his tragic family history, one which involves a residential school heritage, T.B., and an uninvestigated suspicious death. Ellen is stunned to realize that racism exists so close to home.
The sexism that Ellen faces, though not as crude and violent as the racism Tony encounters, has the power to ruin her life. While in Vancouver, another gifted girl in the pilot project leaves for university. The principal then asks Ellen if she wants to continue in the class "alone", the "only girl." Ellen does.
In Salmon Arm, the principal/guidance counsellor tries to steer her away from the final year courses in biology, calculus and physics, telling her that her load is "too heavy for a girl." He suggests home economics and physical education instead. When Ellen stands firm, he says, "I think you're making a big mistake. A young girl like you should be having fun... [But] It'll shake those boys up to have a girl in their class who does more than sit there looking pretty."
The sexism appears not to register on Ellen, who is merely glad to have survived a difficult interview and dodged P.E. and home ec. Thinking back to 1967, when the second wave of the women's movement was scarcely underway and "sexism" was new to the vocabulary, I am sure her reaction is typical. It's a surprise, then, to find elsewhere that Ellen is aware of The Feminine Mystique (Betty Friedan's pioneering feminist work published a few years earlier). She and her mother refer to the book in a discussion of housework at the resort. Stiltedly, as if addressing a public meeting, Ellen's mother says there is "a world of difference between being trapped as a housewife in a role you hate and being an equal partner in a business with your husband, even if the work is similar."
This didactic passage is conspicuous because, generally, references to issues blend smoothly into the narrative. The parents' discussion of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, a 1967 movie about interracial marriage, sounds like the typical post-film conversation of an intelligent couple. Mention of this movie not only reminds older readers of the great changes in social mores during the past 40 years but also ties in with the teen romance theme of the novel. Tony and Ellen do not live in the elite world of the couple in the movie. Racism is bound to affect their relationship if it deepens into love and a shared future.
Occasionally, the author over-explains, instead of allowing readers to come to their own conclusions based on dialogue and action. When Tony tells Ellen that she only sees the "school part" of him and doesn't realize that he has a "whole life outside of school", Ellen's reaction is predictable - but the author spells it out for us. Later in the novel when Ellen realizes that a classmate named Ted has been admiring her from afar, we have six paragraphs of her thoughts, which add up to the realization that, in order to have friends, one must be friendly.
Elsewhere, however, Reid lets events speak for themselves, as in the section in which Ellen helps a native hunter butcher a moose in the bush. "Ellen realized he was looking at the heart," we read. "She turned it slowly, in her hands, enjoying the weight and feel of it." This unusual, hands-on experience makes clear that Ellen knows what is best for herself concerning her life's work.
Donalda Reid shows Tony and Ellen's friendship as one of equals who respect each other. The open ending shows them stronger than when they met, able to face the changing times and pursue their dreams.
Author Reid's bio note shows her present-day concern for the disadvantaged. A retired school principal, writer, artist and traveller, she was captured by Hutu rebels in the Congo in 1998 and lived to tell the tale. Profits from the sale of her book, Captive, a Survival Story, help support the Stephen Lewis Foundation's aid to African grandmothers.
An Ottawa, ON, resident, Ruth Latta says her most recent novel, Spelling Bee (Ottawa, Baico, 2009), takes readers back to the 1960s.
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