________________ CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 3. . . .September 17, 2010


Something Wicked.

Lesley Anne Cowan.
Toronto, ON: Puffin Canada, 2010.
249 pp., pbk., $15.00.
ISBN 978-0-14-317393-9.

Grades 9-12 / Ages 14-17.

Review by Ann Ketcheson.

**** /4

Reviewed from Uncorrected and Unpublished Proofs.



I am ‘sexually promiscuous’.

The words are written down in my file. I can’t escape it. It goes along with all my other labels: ADD, learning disability, irritability and impulsivity. Once someone writes a label down it’s like a big, fat breadcrumb leading the counsellor down the care and treatment path. You see, it’s the person who holds the pen who matters; this is who can ruin your life. The one who takes every mistake you’ve made and every blurted-out word and etches it into your future with the stroke of pen (sic). Of course, the past shapes everyone’s future but with counsellors, the past is the future. The past is never, ever forgotten. You are forced to live it every day. And soon, it becomes who you are.

“Sexually promiscuous,” I slowly read aloud, staring at the opened file on the table. “That’s a new one. So you’re saying I’m a slut?”

Eric, my counsellor, quickly covers up the papers. “No. It means you are perhaps more liberal in your sexual relations than adults feel appropriate for your age group.”

I eye him with suspicion. I have slipped up. I shouldn’t be telling him about all the guys I’m with. Even though he’s a good counsellor, he’s still from an old generation of people who think sex matters. It’s just not a big deal anymore, and so I’ve divulged too much, as usual. Old habits die young. That’s why teenagers are so exciting in therapy. We haven’t yet learned that you aren’t supposed to confess everything. We don’t know that there are two languages: the one you keep in your head, the other you share with everyone else. If you only knew.

If you only really knew the truth about what I do, I think, averting my eyes to the fishbowl.

Melissa is a grade 10 student dealing with myriad of problems. Some are not her fault. Her dad left when she was an infant, and so she lives with her mom. It’s hard to tell who the adult is in that relationship. Her little brother Bradley died when he was a child. Her latest boyfriend, 28-year-old Michael, has not only broken up with her but has left town without a trace. Other problems are caused by Melissa, herself. She is very sexually active, turns to alcohol and drugs frequently, has had run-ins with the police and is frequently suspended from school for a variety of misdemeanors.

     Lesley Anne Cowan’s main character is a turbulent melange of ideas, emotions and reactions, and readers may sometimes feel there is little hope for her. And yet Melissa is strangely endearing. She loves her job at the veterinary clinic and has a soft spot for the animals she helps there. She truly loved Michael and is bewildered and heartbroken when he doesn’t stay with her. Despite her apparently uncaring manner and her impatience with her mother, in the end it is Melissa who brings at least some stability to the family. All of this is done with Melissa’s cheeky, determined, “in your face” approach to life, tinged with a truly wicked sense of humour.

      Cowan is a high school teacher who works with at-risk youth so the voice of experience and understanding can be heard beneath the fiction of the novel. Cowan obviously cares for her characters even as she allows them to make mistakes and find their own way. In Something Wicked, Melissa is surrounded by many capable and sympathetic adults. Some are professional counsellors, teachers and social workers while others include Uncle “Freestyle” and her mom’s hippy friend, Crystal. Cowan portrays these adults as caring and trying their best to form a solid foundation for Melissa, but the teen still must make her own choices and face the consequences of them. Readers get a first-hand and unvarnished glimpse of the many social issues faced by modern teens and the downward spirals which can pull them in and ultimately drown them.

    Like Cowan’s first novel, As She Grows, this book is raw and difficult in places. Sexuality, drugs, drunkenness and suicide are met head on, not glossed over. Some readers may be shocked by Melissa and her actions while others will appreciate the bare bones look at a young woman caught in a seemingly hopeless situation. Cowan waves no magic wand at the end of the book, and Melissa still has a number of problems confronting her. However both Melissa and the reader feel there is hope and a way up and out of her current situation.

     Young adult readers, especially girls, will relate to this novel and Melissa’s struggles. The book has a place in school libraries and also would provoke interesting discussions in classrooms or in book clubs. Although the intended audience is young adults, there is no doubt that parents, teachers and any other adults dealing with youth would benefit from this gripping, objective and yet sympathetic look at twenty-first century teen life and the perils and pressures within it.

Highly Recommended.

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

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

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