CM . . . . Volume XIX Number 40 . . . . June 14, 2013
Stephen Shulevitz is a 17-year-old who is approaching the last few weeks of high school. He is bright but also impulsive. He can be funny, but is more often sarcastic. He is Jewish. Throughout his life, Stephen has been a target for bullies and has been without any real support from his peers. Just as his high school career is ending, Stephen at last falls in love – with the wrong person.
Cameron describes a young protagonist who is just coming to grips with the adult world. He is anxious to move away from his small Nova Scotia town and yet school in Halifax may provide just a different set of problems. This is a coming-of-age novel, but more than that, it is also a coming out novel. Stephen must learn to understand his homosexuality and the confusion, pain and joy that come along with it. Throughout the book, Stephen makes many mistakes and is frequently difficult to like, yet readers will find they remain on his side and want the best for him.
Stephen has had an unusual childhood, beginning with his early years in a sort of hippie commune. His mother, Maryna, retains some of the delusions and daydreams of that earlier time and seems content to simply keep her rather dull job in the small town. She is socially awkward, often embarrassing both Stephen and herself when she tries to fit in with others, usually by telling long and convoluted personal stories. Stephen's father, Stanley, was a pot-smoking hippie who left his wife and son and began a new life with another woman. He now has two small children, but he has no interest whatsoever in Stephen. Stephen's annual week-long visits to Montreal to 'bond' with his new family never bring him any closer to his dad.
Mark is Stephen's long-time friend who makes up for his own lack of academic ability by being tough and, usually, happy to protect Stephen from the bullies who threaten him. Mark doesn't worry about finishing high school, has a job in the local Home Hardware, and by the end of the novel appears ready to settle down with a local girl who is expecting their baby. Throughout most of the novel, he has no idea about Stephen's real feelings toward him and when Stephen finally reveals his true self, Mark's reactions are sudden and strong.
Another interesting character is Stephen's friend Lana, an open and generous girl who truly loves and cares about Stephen and whose Ukrainian family provides both a second home for Stephen as well as some badly needed comic relief. Lana seems to be somewhat Goth with a little bit of punk added in, a free spirit who is also, at times, a grounding mechanism for Stephen.
Cameron has set her novel in a small town and in the 1980s. Both create a background for Stephen's coming out which is different than many young people might face in a more urban area and in 2013, some 30 years later. Attitudes and laws have changed, and one hopes that society in general has become more accepting and tolerant. Stephen's decision to make his sexuality clear to his family and his friends is a painful one for him and forms the crux of the novel. The book flashes back to Stephen's childhood and early high school years, helping readers understand his gradual realisation of who he is and then his need to become comfortable with his true self and help others to do the same.
The cinnamon toast of the title refers to Maryna's favourite comfort food which she learned to make as a child. It seems to symbolize everything that is 'home', 'certain' and comforting for Stephen as well. On the other hand, "It's not the end of the world" is a phrase we most often use to reassure someone that whatever problem they are facing really isn't all that important and can quite likely be resolved. Stephen, however, has a different understanding of the phrase:
The focus of the novel is on Stephen's decision to come out as a gay teenager. The impact on his life, and on the lives of his friends and family, is enormous. There are times when his only way to deal with the pressure seems to be partying, drugs and alcohol. At other times, he is more able to seriously think through what this means and figure out how he can enjoy life. "The end of the world" has arrived for Stephen, and he must deal with it according to his definition above.
Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World is Janet E. Cameron's first novel, and many readers will look forward to another book. If anything, she has tried to crowd too much into this novel – communes and hippie parents, the struggle to accept one's sexuality, bullying, parental abuse of children, the teen world of parties, sex, drugs and booze, ending high school and learning to make adult decisions, dysfunctional families and friends... the list goes on. Some of the nearly 400 pages could be removed without any damage to the story as the details and bad language become repetitive and irritating. Cameron certainly has enough ideas and inspiration to spark several future young adult novels.
Ann Ketcheson is a retired teacher-librarian and high school teacher of English and French who lives in Ottawa, ON.
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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.