CM . . . . Volume XIX Number 11 . . . . November 16, 2012
The abduction or “missing person” narrative has had various incarnations in the young adult and teen genre, with one of the most notable works being Caroline B. Cooney’s The Face on the Milk Carton, which she subsequently followed up with sequels. Joan Lowry Nixon’s The Kidnapping of Christina Lattimore and Sarah Darer Littman’s Want to Go Private are other examples. Typically, such a story often involves a discovery, whether intentional or unexpected, on the part of the protagonist, from which the protagonist must decide what to do with this newfound knowledge. Should the protagonist investigate what has happened, or should the protagonist continue to live a normal existence and act like nothing has changed, until such time when this new knowledge must be unavoidably dealt with?
As a former writer of the original Degrassi Junior High television series, Kathryn Ellis has also been a teacher and publicist. Her novel, Home in Time for Dinner, charts the physical and psychological journey of Chris Ramsey when he discovers that he has been advertised as a missing person and decides to run away to search for his mother. As a whole, the book is an engaging story that will keep readers wondering about the protagonist’s fate. Its characterization of Chris does have one potential deficiency that may raise questions in some readers’ minds about the narrative’s plausibility, but this does not detract from the overall cohesiveness of the remainder of the narrative, itself.
Similar to Caroline Cooney’s The Face on the Milk Carton, Kathryn Ellis’s novel begins with a young protagonist whose identity and life are forever changed after his unexpected discovery that he is a missing kid and that his mother has been searching for him since he has disappeared. Chris Ramsey lives in Dallas with his father, and, despite his parent’s flaws, he is relatively satisfied with his current life, friends, and school. However, he must decide what to do after his discovery, a discovery which is later confirmed by a photo that he finds in his father’s cabinet. In a snap decision, Chris runs away from home to Kingston, ON, in order to find his mother and to find answers as to what has been kept hidden from him for so many years. The rest of this novel focuses on his journey to Canada and the various people and obstacles that Chris encounters.
This key decision by Chris provides the impetus for the book’s narrative arc during which he encounters people from various backgrounds on his trip to Canada. Yet, the process by which he arrives at this decision seems rather abrupt, such that readers may not feel readily invested in what happens to him or feel that it is believable. Part of this abruptness is due to the lack of narrative development after Chris sees the television advertisement and photo. Although it is probable that someone in Chris’s situation could run away from home, this seems to occur rather quickly. Ellis does show how he feels angry, disillusioned, and frightened simultaneously, since this discovery changes his perception of his self-identity as well as his relationship with his father and friends. Despite these feelings, it seems rather sudden that he should decide within a day to run away and cut himself off from the familiar environment, friends, and father whom he has known for much of his life. His relationship with his father has not been particularly unbearable, other than his father’s strict rules. In the span of a few pages, Chris decides to leave home with a limited amount of cash at his disposal.
Given that Chris’s current living circumstances are not particularly unhappy, it would have perhaps been more realistic if he had not left home straightaway and, instead, felt more uncertainty about what he should do next. By illustrating this uncertainty, exploring Chris’s mindset a bit more, and depicting more of his current life before he runs away, the novel would have better engaged readers and caused them to feel more invested in what happens to Chris. A potential danger in advancing the plot so quickly is that this approach may lose some readers who do not feel connected with the main characters.
Despite the potential deficiencies in the novel’s opening, the rest of the novel after Chris leaves home engages the readers more effectively. The time frame of the entire story is a single week in May 1992, during which time Chris travels from Dallas to Kingston. Readers will be immersed in Chris’s experiences and his conflicting emotions towards his father, mother, and the people he meets. As the novel progresses, Ellis does well in portraying Chris’s emotional turmoil and in conveying his vacillating emotions during different stages of the trip. While Chris feels anger and a sense of betrayal towards his father, he also fears that he may never find his mother or that she may not accept him back. In addition, he feels lonely and disconnected from other people who, he feels, cannot really identify with what he is going through. Chris is also suspicious of the people he meets, and he lies about why he is travelling because he feels that he cannot trust anyone with the truth. Instead, he is afraid that they may report him to the police who would then send him back home.
Besides Chris’s psychological struggles to come to terms with who he is, his trip is marred by obstacles and setbacks. These include a shortage of money as well as his doubts about whom he can trust since he is convinced that his father may have notified the authorities about his disappearance. Moreover, as a young adult, various people take advantage of him. A soldier swindles him of fifty dollars instead of helping him to buy a bus ticket. Later in the novel, he is swindled again by some young people who live on the streets in Toronto. He even gets physically injured and also fears for his life at one point when he is hitchhiking with a stranger who, at first glance, appears to be an innocuous priest.
Arguably, another potential criticism about the novel is whether the narrative’s plausibility is stretched by the fact that Chris concludes his journey relatively unscathed. Admittedly, he does get mistreated unpleasantly by a few people whom he meets, and he also gets injured when he runs away from someone’s property. Yet, he manages to survive on a limited amount of money that quickly runs out, and he does encounter a variety of people who could have inflicted significant harm. However, such is the nature of writing such a story for young readers; the narrative development is perhaps necessarily constrained because certain territory may not be seen as age-appropriate, particularly for younger readers. This is not a deficiency of the story itself, but rather its genre and readership. In a novel for an adult readership, a grittier exploration of certain themes may have been more readily developed, such as a more grisly or bleak depiction of young people who live on the streets. For example, the street kids that Chris meets in Toronto may have been portrayed in a more “adult” manner in a novel for adults.
With this type of narrative in which the protagonist searches for a parent, the ending is perhaps predictable because such a search can only result in one of two possible outcomes: Chris is either successful or unsuccessful in finding his mother. Again, the ending’s predictability can also be attributed to the novel’s genre and readership. Nevertheless, the novel remains open-ended as it is unknown what happens to Chris’s father, and Chris does not seem to fully know his father’s motivation for abducting him.
Due to its plot-driven narrative, this book may appeal less strongly to readers who prefer stories that deal with young people’s daily lives and the tribulations of growing up. Instead, Home in Time for Dinner may be of particular interest to reluctant readers. Although Chris’s abduction is the impetus for the novel’s development, it is his actual trip to find his mother rather than the complexities surrounding the issue of abduction that drives the narrative forward. Therefore, reluctant readers can become engaged with the plot, itself, as it does not deal heavily with complex themes and social issues.
The book’s language is appropriate for the age of its intended readership. At the end of the novel, there is an interview with Kathryn Ellis that will give readers further insight into her background and development as a writer as well as her views on why she wrote the story. Budding writers may find some inspiration in her words: “If you are a writer of any age, the medium doesn’t matter. Think of a good story and tell it well.”
As a “teachable text”, Home in Time for Dinner does not seem to fit very easily into a specific unit or theme, partly because it is more of a plot-driven story within which character development occurs. In addition, other issues besides child abduction—such as homelessness, poverty, and isolation—appear in the novel, but they are not dealt with extensively. Perhaps a more useful approach to this novel as a teaching point would be to focus the discussion on the readers themselves. For example, teachers can use Ellis’s novel as a starting point for discussing what young people do when faced with momentous decisions or how young people may feel when they make unexpected discoveries that change their self-identities or whole outlook on life. Another possible avenue that teachers could explore is how Ellis’s novel characterizes young people, their psychology, and motivation, and how this compares to students’ perceptions of themselves.
For more information about Ellis’s novel, readers can visit the website of her publisher, Red Deer Press, http://www.reddeerpress.com.
Huai-Yang Lim has a degree in Library and Information Studies and works as a research specialist. He enjoys reading, reviewing, and writing children’s literature in his spare time.
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