CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 30 . . . . April 8, 2011
Alex, 14, comes to Brier Island in Nova Scotia to spend the summer with her aunt Sophie. She's angry, withdrawn and not looking forward to make new connections with anyone or anything. Her family has been devastated by the tragic death of her brother from a head injury, and nothing makes much sense to her anymore. Sophie and her network of Island friends try to get Alex interested in life again, but nothing works until Alex goes out on a nature watching trip with salty old seaman, Gus. Gus knows all about the local birds and seals and the humpback whales. Alex is immediately drawn to a young calf whom she christens Daredevil, and she almost reluctantly becomes absorbed in marine biology. She has her own accident and head injury, makes friends with a girl her age, sets up an Island marriage and finally ends up in grave danger when she tries to free Daredevil from the confines of a tangled fishing line.
The setting of remote Brier Island is evocative and atmospheric, and Yhard really brings the rugged coastline to life. Also wonderful are the characters of the various Island folk. Even Alex can't help herself from warming to them and when she realizes her boat captain, Gus, has a thing for magnificent baker Eva, she doesn't waste any time in pussyfooting around the subject. The novel ends with a wedding between the two. These Brier Island adults are funny and well-rounded and a real pleasure to read about.
One of the weaknesses of the novel is that Alex, herself, is a little flat as a character. She has potential to be an engaging character, and the way she takes to whales and dives into right into her new interest is compelling. But her actions and emotions are sometimes predictable and not deeply communicated. Alex struggles to find a clear voice and a solid personality, not just because of her misery, but also because of some uninspired writing. Perhaps a first person point of view could have made her character a little more dynamic and relatable.
Alex's family dynamic is well-drawn, and the break-up of her parent's marriage, such a common occurrence when a child dies, is handled with lightness and subtlety. Yhard shows how grief affects a family in unanticipated ways and how this makes moving forward even more difficult for Alex. I was less certain of the success of using Daredevil (who shares traits with Alex's brother) as a parallel story, a chance for Alex to see the cycle of life in perspective and to attempt to save another living being when she couldn't save her brother. In the end, we don't know if Daredevil will survive, but it would not have been trite to allow Alex and the reader a happier ending for the whale.
There are a few other missed opportunities, such as a more meaningful or expanded environmental angle (ie. human impact on whales or even something more challenging) which could have made the book more topical and taken it beyond the more obvious issue of grieving. The importance of empathy and the development of the human/animal bond is one of the strongest aspects of the book, and Yhard would have done well to focus more on this in some places.
I wanted to like this novel more than I did. It is a worthwhile story, but it seemed underdeveloped, driven by the author's plan to deal with specific issues rather than allowed to progress naturally so that the characters could flourish and inspire.
Recommended with reservations.
Kris Rothstein is a children's book agent and reviewer in Vancouver, BC.
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other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.