________________ CM . . . . Volume XIX Number 21. . . .February 1, 2013


Counting Back from Nine.

Valerie Sherrard.
Markham, ON: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2013.
196 pp, trade pbk., $9.95.
ISBN 978-1-55455-245-0.

Subject Headings:
Coming of age-Juvenile fiction.
Friendships in adolescence-Juvenile fiction.
Teenage girls-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.

Review by Joanne Peters.

*** /4



When IT began I thought I would crumble, fall apart, blurt it out. Confess everything. Or get [caught]. That was the worst thought of all.

Guilt and fear whispered in me until they had me convinced I was sending out signals ((((((((i))))))) But no one noticed a thing. My friends trust me.

We're at Angie's place at the moment. The four of us. Me Laren (rhymes with Karen) Morgan, Angie and Nina. It's pouring rain outside, but we don't care. We've got movies and snacks. We've got the house to ourselves.

I'm about as relaxed as I've been since IT began until Morgan says, oh-so-casually, "I don't know who you think you're fooling about Scott. Everybody knows what's going on."


"IT" began with a secret, but secrets have a short shelf-life amongst a group of four teen-aged girls. When one of them has "secretly" begun dating the former boyfriend of one of those girls, things are bound to get complicated.

      Laren has committed a "crime against friendship" (19) and knows the punishment that follows the crime: the big freeze and total ostracism from her former girlfriends, loyal to the still-hurting Nina. Nor is Scott much help for Laren; suddenly, she is shunned at school, has to find new girls with whom to eat lunch, and where lunch with Scott and his friends means "pathetically soaking up the bits of attention that dribble down during breaks in the jock talk." (22) Laren is more than mildly miserable, so her mother plans a family outing to which Scott is invited, and rather surprisingly, he accepts the invitation. But, before the get-together happens, Laren's life changes with a phone call. Her dad has been in a car accident, and, although his injuries appear to be minor, unexpectedly, he dies.

      After her father's funeral, Laren reflects: "I think to myself that the worst is over/but that is because/I have no idea what lies ahead." (46) What lies ahead is the revelation of another secret: Laren's father was not alone in the car at the time the accident happened. Just as Laren has betrayed Nina with Scott, her father betrayed her mother with the woman in the car.

      Returning to school, Laren is barely able to get through the day. Waiting for the phone call that will allow her to leave school and go home, Laren heads for the school's library (the ER for emotional trauma) where she sees a display featuring anthologies of student poems and stories. She picks up a copy, turns to the page featuring her poem, and as she reads it, suddenly has a memory of her father, the man she knew, loved and respected, before his death and the revelation of his affair.

      Laren finds herself a solitary traveller in the land of grief: her mother is grappling with both the shock of her husband's infidelity and the state of widowhood; her nine-year-old brother, Jackson, a remarkably lovable "little turniphead" (23) is acting out; her old friends are still hostile, and, while her new lunch-table mates are friendly, they are not friends. As for Scott, who didn't bother to attend either her father's funeral or wake, he seems to provide some emotional refuge, taking her to

Places and moments where
tears and sadness are trespassers.
Places where reality has floated into the air and away
and every thought, every feeling
gives way to the travelling warmth of his touch.

      But Laren is uneasy with the relationship, and guilt over her own complicity in the crime against her former friend, Nina, eats away at her. As the year following her father's death progresses, once-a-week grief counselling sessions enable Laren to remember, reflect, and to vent the entire confusing range of feelings she experiences. After recalling nine significant memories of her father (the "counting back from nine" of the book's title), she comes to a crucial insight:

Nothing is ever perfect,
but that shouldn't stop us from taking hold of
all the good there is.

     Counting Back from Nine is a powerful young adult novel. It's not just another story of a high school romance that fails; it's about the tensions (and joys) of family relationships, the impact of losing a parent at a formative point in one's emotional development, and the social fall-out resulting when a girl knowingly breaks the unspoken rules of high school female friendships and finds herself "un-friended".

      Anyone who has read Valerie Sherrard's other works knows that she is expert at capturing the nuances of adolescent conversation. In Counting Back from Nine, the voices of Laren and her mother are strong and distinct. You can hear Laren's rage when she states:

It is NOT acceptable for ANYONE who is NOT ME
to answer MY phone
when I am in the shower.

      The novel is written in free verse, and not only does the poetry capture the rhythms of speech more effectively, but the visual impact of the free verse adds another powerful dimension. And, somehow, the nastiness of which teen-age girls are especially capable, is even meaner when rendered in poetry.

      At times, Counting Back from Nine can be challenging reading, and, if I have any quibbles with the story, it's that I had a hard time believing that Laren is only 14. Both her voice and her insights seem far in advance of her years. While the novel certainly isn't "chick lit", this is a book which will be read and enjoyed primarily by a female audience. Guys just aren't going to pick up a book with a cover featuring photo vignettes of a younger and older girl, surrounded by abstract bubbles. It's a shame, because Counting Back from Nine is an excellent novel.

Highly Recommended.

Joanne Peters, a retired high school teacher-librarian, lives in Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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