CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 40 . . . . June 15, 2012
During the summer of 1971, 15-year-old Darlene is saddled with the responsibility of entertaining her older, more sophisticated cousin in the sleepy Canadian cottage community of Cedar Lake. Their summer, which seems destined to settle into long predictable days of sunbathing, stocking shelves at the family’s little summer store, and partying on the beach, is interrupted by the arrival of an exotic new family of renters: Candy, Johnny and their little boy, Sean. Along with a free-wheeling, hippy vibe, this family brings with them an air of mystery.Darlene is intrigued by Johnny and his family, and she senses a connection between him and her mother. Enter their journalist neighbour Gideon. He also senses something, maybe a story. He enlists Darlene’s help in investigating the mysterious family and a possible connection to the American war in Vietnam. And although this appeals to Darlene’s dream of becoming a writer, her major concern is the havoc her nasty cousin is wreaking on her social life.
Novelist Brenda Chapman skillfully manages the balance between Darlene’s intimate adolescent concerns and the confusing adult world that is infuriatingly out of reach. The teen’s tightrope walk between many competing demands seems entirely authentic. Darlene copes through sarcastic and often amusing internal commentary, but it is her generous, idealistic attitude that makes her a sympathetic, likeable character. Darlene’s natural inclination is to try to understand and to forgive the failings of those around her, including her angry, distant father and her spoiled, mean-spirited cousin.
The diverse range of support characters contribute to a very satisfying story. Their issues and personalities furnish the plot and Darlene’s life with rich detail. Readers learn, for example, that Darlene’s father’s headaches and bad temper are the result of a nervous breakdown which followed the drowning of Darlene’s sister. And Darlene’s cousin’s behavior is perhaps due to her mother’s alcoholism and her parents’ deteriorating marriage.
As the summer comes to an end, so do the many complications, problems and mysteries – maybe a little too neatly, but certainly satisfactorily. The Vietnam War subplot is complicated and interesting, but its resolution seems rushed; readers are told about it, rather than shown. This failing is apparent in the resolution of the Gideon subplot as well.
Chapman has created a strong, believable character in Darlene. Through her narration of the summer’s events, readers see inside the complicated emotional landscape of a teenage girl and feel her frustrations and sadness while sharing her hopes and happiness. Darlene also carries the main theme of the novel quite well. Her experiences show readers the wisdom of giving people, including themselves, a second chance.
Charlotte Duggan is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg, MB.
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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.