CM . . .
. Volume XVII Number 11. . . .November 12, 2010
Toronto, ON: Dancing Cat Books/Cormorant Books, 2010.
255 pp., pbk., $12.95.
Novels in verse.
Abandoned children-Juvenile fiction.
Emotional problems-Juvenile fiction.
Mothers and daughters-Juvenile fiction.
Grades 5-8 / Ages 10-13.
Review by Ann Ketcheson.
I overhear doctors saying
Other than my hand,
I'm not burned,
but inside me
Eleven-year-old Casey is part of an interesting family: her mom used to have a successful singing career, her sister Ginny is autistic and her stepdad John owns and runs a busy restaurant. Casey realizes this situation confines her musician mother because their personalities are very similar, and so she isn't totally surprised when mom leaves the family to try and restart her career. No doubt this situation will be merely temporary. However, her mother's move leaves Casey in charge, and she has her hands full trying to look after things at home, keeping Ginny calm and happy, doing her homework and trying out for the lead in the school production of Annie. John doesn't have the knack of dealing with Ginny, and the restaurant keeps him busy so Casey convinces herself she can handle whatever comes along. However there is pressure from all sides, and Casey learns she isn't as invincible as she had hoped. She lashes out in many ways, including starting fires in the hope that her mother will see the resulting smoke, recognize the distress signal and return home.
Now and then, a young adult novel crosses my path and stands apart from all of the others. Burn is such a book. Fullerton has the ability to capture her characters in a vivid, realistic way with a minimum of words. Her characters are like simple sketches which say much more than a detailed oil painting. Less description allows readers to fill in the blanks and make the characters their own. We understand Casey's frustration as she takes on far more than she is able to deal with and eventually breaks, losing her best friend and becoming involved in fights at school. None of this is her fault in reality, but she is a taut elastic band just waiting to snap.
Ginny, too, is beautifully sketched in the book, showing many autistic tendencies, such as needing things done how and when they have always taken place and reacting negatively to anything which seems to represent change in her life. Yet she is portrayed sympathetically and often with humour as a bright child caught in her autistic cage. Fullerton helps us understand the adults and their reactions to stress as well. Casey's mother feels caged within the family after enjoying the freedom and variety of her music career. John uses work at the restaurant to duck other responsibilities, and when that doesn't suffice, there's always his friend and co-worker, Lulu, or a few extra glasses of wine.
Fullerton's novel is written in free verse which will appeal to many young readers. Keen readers will appreciate her ability to tell an enthralling and detailed story in such a succinct style and will likely finish the book in one sitting. Reluctant readers will also be a good audience for the book since there are few words and lots of white space on each page, with the result that the text is not overwhelming. "Chapters" are usually just a page or two long. Merely the appearance of the text on several pages is telling: capitals and spaces are used to clarify emotions or to measure the passage of time. In some cases, the text becomes a shape which reinforces its meaning.
Careful thought was given to the cover which shows two yellow sneakers below red pants. Red and yellow - the colours of fire. One sneaker is tightly laced while the other is starting to come undone, just as Casey is often tough and capable yet can come emotionally undone when the stress is too much for her.
This is a must-have, must-read young adult novel. It deals with a parent who abandons her family and the resulting emotional problems but is neither pessimistic nor gloomy. The ending is unexpected but satisfying, without seeming trite. Despite her shortcomings, Casey is a young woman with whom readers will relate on many levels. The events of the plot move quickly, and, while perhaps they are not typical, they are representative of the daily stresses we all face. Fullerton has written a literary, heart-warming, approachable and original novel – how fortunate for us!
Ann Ketcheson, a retired teacher-librarian and teacher of high school English and French, lives in Ottawa, ON.
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