CM . . . . Volume XIX Number 15 . . . . December 14, 2012
Birmingham Glover, like many 15-year-olds, is confused about sex and love. Birmingham's best friend encourages him to take advantage of his new relationship with hot and sexually-experienced Jenna Starr and finally lose his virginity. Jenna seems to want to do it all the time, in increasingly risky locations: in the cemetery, behind a dumpster, on the train tracks...but these emotionless physical encounters leave Birmingham feeling empty and disappointed, and he's conflicted about Jenna's reputation for having slept with every guy in the school.
The only person who seems to understand Birmingham is Ms. Flood, the new substitute music teacher. However, it quickly becomes evident that Ms. Flood is offering more than just piano tutorials as their after school meetings move to her house and eventually a hotel room.
When Birmingham and Ms. Flood are caught together, Jenna sets the school rumour mill to work in retaliation. Birmingham is labelled a pervert by his peers for allegedly having sex with a teacher more than twice his age. Soon the superintendent is conducting an inquiry into allegations of an improper teacher-student relationship. Amidst mixed messages from peers and adults about love, sex and the importance of truth, Birmingham must decide what to do to protect Jenna, Ms. Flood and himself.
Off Limits, a hi-lo novel for young adults, focuses on a contemporary young man from a generally happy, mainstream Canadian life who is faced with typical teenage questions that take a disturbing turn. The writing is strong, and, although the story moves along quite quickly, it is easy to forget it is written at a 4.0 reading level.
However, unlike some hi-lo books, which can have flexible-age audiences, this is not one for younger students "reading up" a level. There is a lot of sex in this book, none of it happy, most of it conflicted, and some of it crossing the line well into criminal assault. The treatment of these experiences is certainly within the range of realistic responses; Birmingham minimizes his feelings about the situations, and the narration echoes his tone.
On one hand, this realism, along with other elements that resist clichés (a male survivor of sexual assault, girlfriend pressuring boyfriend to have sex, artistic straight male), makes this a courageous book. On the other, this same lack of critical reflection on situations-ranging from Jenna's hypersexual attempts to keep Birmingham interested to Ms. Flood getting him drunk and initiating sexual activity–may be distressing to some readers. While Birmingham does eventually come to realise that Jenna is a complete, complex human being, for whom he may like for more than her body, the issue of Birmingham's feelings of violation after non-consensual sexual encounters with a teacher is hardly dealt with.
Perhaps even more disturbing is the inquiry in which the principal, Ms. Flood, and the students all enter into a tacit agreement to lie to the superintendent and cover up Ms. Flood's sexual assaults on a minor, despite the fact that this is not her first offense. An added troubling twist is the subplot in which Ms. Flood's husband, a well-known author whom Birmingham admires, appears to be arranging the trysts between his wife and her young student. Unfortunately, the back-of-book blurb does not convey the scope of the content of the novel, implying that Ms. Flood is truly "off limits" to Birmingham's teenage crush, and a reader may not be expecting a book about what is essentially conspiracy to commit statutory rape.
I would recommend Off Limits to public libraries with teen collections, and selected secondary school settings. For a mature teen, the book may be an enjoyable read, and in the context of a discussion group with a well-prepared youth audience, it could perhaps be used in an educational setting to discuss the physical and emotional aspects of "safe sex." However, while Off Limits is a well-written and accessible book, I would be cautious about assigning or recommending it to a young person specifically, due to the lack of critical reflection on (or apparent impact of), the sexual assault and coercion on behalf of trusted adults in the life of the main character.
Recommended with reservations.
Devon Greyson is a PhD student in Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC.
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