CM . . .
. Volume XX Number 41. . . .June 20, 2014
Natalie Corbett Sampson.
Halifax, NS: Fierce Ink Press, 2013.
352 pp., trade pbk., $16.99.
Grades 8-11 / Ages 13-16.
Review by Joan Marshall.
“How long – why am I just hearing about this now?” Ella winced at her mother’s tone.
“I’m sorry, I – I needed to talk to Sam first. He took me to a place – a clinic today and we heard a – the heartbeat.” Ella’s chest tightened. “I’m so sorry, Momma. So sorry.”
“I know.” Her voice was flat, but Ella’s mother finally put her arm back around her. Ella relaxed against her and the hug tightened. “Dammit, Ella, how did this – what were you thinking?”
“I know, it’s stupid.” The tears threatened again. “Momma, I’m scared.”
Her mother took a deep breath and swore on her exhale. “I know.” After a gulping swallow she added, “Me too.”
“What am I going to do?” Ella’s voice was small.
“I don’t know, Ella.” With another deep breath she continued, “Your father and I will help you but…you got yourself into this mess. I’m afraid you’re going to have to figure it out.”
Game Plan is the story of how 17-year-old Ella Parker copes with an unwanted, accidental pregnancy while infertile Katherine and Danny struggle through the adoption process.
Basketball is Ella’s passion. She and her older brother Ben and his pal Charlie play whenever they can. Ella’s friends Alex and Karen round out their happy group. Karen goes out with Jake, and Alex is secretly in love with Ben, while Ella wishes she had a boyfriend. Then Sam, a handsome, popular senior, asks her out, and soon they are a couple. At a party Ella drinks too much and lets her guard down, enjoying sex with Sam. Afterwards, she realizes she doesn’t want this sexual relationship, and Sam reluctantly says he will wait until she’s ready. Soon Ella realizes that she is pregnant, and Sam leaves her because she won’t get an abortion. Although Ella’s devastated, she realizes she is truly in love with Charlie. With the support of Karen, Ben, Charlie and her parents, Ella completes her grade 11 year and delivers a healthy baby girl, Anna, whom she gives up for adoption to Katherine and Danny. Ella finishes grade 12, receiving photos periodically of Anna while Ben and Charlie go off to university. In an epilogue, Ella finally arrives at university on a basketball scholarship.
Ella is a strong, motivated, happy girl who works hard at school and basketball. Her naivety and insecurity about boys leads her into trouble with Sam. Her inner strength helps her to survive the pregnancy in spite of the turmoil swirling around her choices, Sam’s rejection and the mean-spirited gossip that seeps into her life. Ella learns who will support her and leans on them to survive. Once she has made the decision to give up the baby for adoption, Ella sticks to it in spite of the pain, realizing that it is a better life for Anna.
Ben plays the concerned older brother role, stepping in to protect Ella when he can. Charlie’s good nature and cheerful teasing mask his love for Ella, a love he expresses by challenging Sam’s intentions and ultimately becoming Ella’s true love. Ella’s eight year friendship with Karen doesn’t survive the Sam problem, but Ella works harder on her friendship with Alex who keeps Ella upbeat with her shopping trips and movie nights. Ella’s basketball coach challenges her to be her best as a person and a player, encouraging her to apply for scholarships. Ella’s loving, involved parents are too good to be true, hiding their disappointment and anger while steadfastly voicing their opinion that Ella must solve the pregnancy problem on her own, being ultimately responsible for her own decisions.
Katherine is an uptight, anxious and depressed woman in her late twenties whose life revolves around her inability to conceive. Her more cheerful, easy-going husband Danny, despite his own unhappiness at their childless state, makes a concerted effort to keep Katherine happy. Their determination to “play the game” with the social worker Jessie, to show her their strengths as possible parents and to hide their sadness, is heart-breaking, especially when it’s clear that whether or not they will ever be parents hinges on their profile being chosen by a birth mother. And Ella chooses them because they have a dog, and she always wanted a dog.
This story is set in the United States, near Boston. Ella and her friends go to school by school bus and drive their parents’ cars in the evenings, or are picked up by those parents. Many scenes take place in the high school cafeteria; sports dominates school life, with university hopefuls eying sports scholarships. The active basketball scenes, both on the driveway and in the gym, will attract readers who are keen players. Health care is paid for by individuals, not the state as in Canada. The students drink alcohol; drugs are not part of their lives. The teens all have cell phones and text and send photos to each other to communicate. Language used includes typical swearing heard at any high school.
Chapters are titled by the month of the year in which they take place. Each chapter alternates within it the stories of Ella, and Katherine and Danny. Dialogue is up-to-date and not only advances the plot but clearly exposes characters’ emotions and beliefs. Sam’s choking admission, for example, that he can’t accept responsibility for the baby because his family would never forgive him and his sneering comment “It could be anyone’s”, clearly betray his ambivalence and pain. Unfortunately, the author often feels the need to explain rather than just let the great dialogue tell the story.
The story of an unplanned teen pregnancy is fraught with dangers. There are many stereotypes and clichés that are almost unavoidable: innocent naïve girl has sex once under the influence of alcohol and gets pregnant; pregnant teen hears baby’s heartbeat and so can’t get an abortion; teen’s parents are loving and supportive; baby’s father rejects responsibility; prom is so important that pregnant teen has to attend and enjoy it. This book maintains all these clichés.
Another major problem with this book is the inclusion of Katherine and Danny’s story. This is not a YA issue and will be seen as an irritant by the intended reader who simply will not be able to care about the agony of infertility. It is unfortunate also that Katherine and Danny are so young as today’s infertile parents are people in their 40’s, not their 20’s. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find many people in their 20’s even married let alone thinking about having children, a life choice which now seems to be left to the late 30’s. Clearly this book teeters on the edge of pro-life, pro-adoption philosophy, with long sections detailing the adoption process.
The title of this book is full of irony. Ella’s basketball playbook binder is full of prescribed plays she has memorized to advance her basketball career. But her lack of a clear game plan for her emotional life destroys her grade 11 year and has a profound influence on her life. Katherine and Danny have a game plan, but it doesn’t come to fruition, and they have to play the game by the rules of the adoption agency to get what they want.
Although there are many problems with this novel, because the issue of teen pregnancy is always of concern, especially among teenage girl, Game Plan may be useful as a jumping off point in any high school discussion about sexual relationships and pregnancy.
Joan Marshall is a Winnipeg, MB, bookseller.
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