CM . . .
. Volume XVIII Number 37. . . .May 25, 2012
Saskatoon, SK. Thistledown Press, 2012.
241 pp., trade pbk., $15.95.
Grades 7-10 / Ages 12-15.
Review by Ann Ketcheson.
Granny used to say that as a little kid I was a real chatterbox. She couldn't shut me up, and I asked so many questions, endlessly wanting to know about how the world worked, that she started refusing to answer in the hope I'd stop. There was no mystery I didn't want her to solve for me: rainbows, blue sky, God and death. These days my old chatterbox ways seemed pretty ironic.
Granny, who had kept me safe in the way a farmer might put blinders on his carthorse – so he doesn't get spooked and hurt himself – was a National Geographic addict. One of those people with stacks of yellow-spined magazines on every spare shelf. Searching for some peace and quiet, she sent me to the bookshelf whenever she got fed up with my endless jabbering. It was between those golden covers I saw my first full-length naked man.
In one of those National Geographics I also once saw a photograph of an iceberg. Why did I remember it? Probably because of its beauty, rising majestic from the water, cool blue shadows hiding in the nooks and crannies of its surface. But the photo on the next page really got to me, the photo of the iceberg's awesome lie. I always wondered how the photographer got that shot; it showed that the iceberg was only peeking above the surface. The rest of that block of ice hid under the water, like a massive secret. I was stunned and amazed at that crazy iceberg, able to successfully hide so much of itself.
Annabel, aka Ghost, is finally in a safe foster home where foster parents Mary and Bobby truly seem to care about their 'family' and where Ghost can always get away from the other teens by heading out to spend time with the horses whom Mary has also adopted. Ghost is only 15, but her past has been marked by difficulties and tragedies: a drug-abusing mother and her many boyfriends and the unexpected death of her grandmother, the one person who provided some guidance and stability. Life has been so traumatic for Ghost that she has, literally, lost her ability to speak. Her past has also made her vulnerable, and so, when she thinks that perhaps she has a chance at love and a happy life, she runs away from the safety net of the foster home only to find herself in Ottawa surrounded by people she neither knows nor trusts. Circumstances don't allow her to return to the foster home, and yet she can no longer cope in the toxic atmosphere of Graydon and his dealer-friend Cooper. Ghost must find some way to change her life around, even if she cannot speak and explain her needs.
Voiceless is Caroline Wissing's first novel, and her portrayal of Ghost is one which will leave a long-lasting impression on young adult readers. Ghost is literally voiceless and also, as a runaway and foster kid, has no voice in her own life situation. She has endured abuse and abandonment and is quite naturally wary of forming relationships both with adults and with other teens. Yet this background also means that Ghost is yearning for love, acceptance and stability. Like the iceberg in National Geographic which she admired as a child, Ghost, herself, is very successful at hiding most of what she thinks and feels, and very few are allowed to penetrate below her tough exterior. Unfortunately, she looks in the wrong places to have her needs met while, in fact, the answers are right in front of her all along.
Wissing has used settings with which she is familiar, and so both the horse farm/foster home and the downtown core of Ottawa ring true. Within the city, Ghost is exposed not only to the wealth and prosperity of the national capital but also to the seedy street life which is part of any city. This novel includes sex scenes, rape, drug abuse, living on the streets, and teen prostitution which are all integral to the plot but may not be comfortable for all readers. That said, they are not gratuitous but help readers understand just what Ghost has endured and what has shaped her personality.
Despite these darker moments in the novel, Wissing has essentially created a book of both hope and inspiration. Ghost, in her own way, eventually comes to grips with what has happened to her and, when she has to, is able to take control of events and begin to slowly but surely shape her life into something to be proud of. Readers will applaud her grit and determination. The ending of the novel is, perhaps, too convenient and less believable than what has preceded it. A better choice might have been to assure readers that Ghost was heading in the right direction, yet leave them wondering about Ghost's future rather than "filling in the blanks."
Voiceless, right from the image on the front cover, will appeal to female young adult readers. Ghost is tough and pragmatic and a remarkable young woman who eventually regains not only her voice but her ability to determine where she will go and what she will do, thus being voiceless no longer. Brava!
Ann Ketcheson, a retired high school teacher of English and French and teacher-librarian, lives in Ottawa, ON, though in neither in its posh nor seamy side.
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