________________ CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 17. . . .January 7, 2011


Dust City.

Robert Paul Weston.
Toronto, ON: Penguin Canada, 2010.
299 pp., pbk., $21.00.
ISBN 978-0-670-06396-3.

Grades 7-10 / Ages 12-15.

Review by Ann Ketcheson.

*** /4



'Pine Street' is barely more than an alcove, a narrow recess that widens (somewhat) into a wretched alleyway. I poke my head out of the shadows again to check the sign. Pine Street it is. I'm in the right place, only there certainly aren't any pine trees.

Moving farther in, I'm forced to duck my head to avoid the fire escapes, clawing down with rusty fingers. High above, strings of laundry hang like a million wistful grins.


I look to the left, but there's only an overflowing Dumpster. I'd be surprised if it'd ever been emptied. No garbage truck could squeeze into a clotted alleyway like this one.

"Hey, c'mere."

A thin grey fox steps out of the shadows He's wearing a ratty anorak with a woolly hat pulled down over his brow, but it doesn't hide his distinctive face. Two streaks of black run up either side, from his snout to the tips of his ears. His eyes are sodium-yellow in the lamplight, sparkling with flecks of violet. In the dimness of the alley, they flash like jewels.

"You wanna buy some dust?"

"What?" I shake my head, trying to stifle my surprise.

"Dust," he says. "Good stuff." His breath hits me, smelling of bile, as if he hasn't eaten in days. "Old Jerry's got the finest of the fine."

Henry Whelp is in a juvenile detention centre in Dust City and, yes, his dad's in jail because he's the big bad wolf who killed Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother Henry vaguely remembers the days when he was a cub and fairies dispensed real fairydust to help people realize their dreams and their potential. But the fairies have disappeared, and the fairydust people crave now is synthetic, produced by a pharmaceutical company called Nimbus. Everyone in town is hooked on dust, and there is an active black market to supply it for them.

     Henry discovers his psychiatrist has been murdered and, at the same time, receives a package of letters sent to him by his father but never delivered and decides it is the moment to take action. He aims to find out what happened to the real fairies and, in the process, prove that his dad wasn't entirely to blame for the murder for which he was convicted. There seems to be a conspiracy between Nimbus and a gang of criminals called Water Nixies whose notorious boss is named Skinner, and Henry is determined to get to the bottom of it. Every hero needs help, so Henry enlists his klepto friend Jack and Fiona, a she-wolf with plenty of courage and intelligence....and a camera.

     Robert Paul Weston has written a unique young adult novel which resists easy classification. There are elements of mystery and adventure which run through the plot and make Dust City a most unwelcoming and frightening place. This book is also somewhere between fairy tale and fantasy where the world is inhabited by wolves, elves and other creatures, all of whom have human characteristics. In his acknowledgements, Weston mentions the influence of the Grimm brothers' folktales on his own imagination.

     Weston's writing also has elements of satire and humour in it, as the Dust City world has class and race issues, drugs and violence, and the mob and assorted gangsters. Anyone who enjoys word play will appreciate subtle allusions to fairy tales, such as the director of the detention centre named Cindy Ella and Henry's friend Jack who can deliver a beanstalk more or less on demand. Latin enthusiasts (do they still exist?) will chuckle at a fox named Vulpino, a wolf named Mrs. Lupovitz and one of the main birds in the story called Eddie Aves.

     This young adult novel will have great appeal for some readers who enjoy urban fantasy and a tale set in the dark underbelly of a city where drug use and torture are the norm. While easy to read and fast-paced, it may be too dark for others. Weston seems unable to decide just where he wanted to go with the book; it fits no specific genre. Because of the general atmosphere and violence of the novel, it seems the intended audience is intermediate or early high school grade levels, and yet the main characters are all talking animals which usually appeal to much younger students.

     Weston's debut novel, Zorgamazoo, won a Silver Birch award and was highly praised for its creativity. Dust City is an entirely different book, yet is also well-written, clever and imaginative. For readers who want a little mystery, violence, fairy tale and satire all mixed in one coming-of-age novel, Henry Whelp and his animalia cohorts will deliver.


Ann Ketcheson is a retired teacher-librarian and teacher of high school English and French who currently lives in Ottawa, ON.

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

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