1986 Notable Canadian Materials: Young Adult Fiction
By Sarah Ellis
Volume 16 Number 1
The year 1986 was a surprise. Writing early in the year, Patsy Aldana of Groundwood Books, which had published no fiction at all in the previous year, said that it was worth noting that sales of juvenile fiction, especially of new and lesser-known writers, were very disappointing. Then 1986 came and went and we were left with a splendid range and quality of titles. In the area of young adult literature a respectable sprinkling of books took the giant step beyond the bland, the safe and the predictable.
Of the titles that interested me in 1986, Last Chance Summer* was the most unexpected surprise. Diana Wieler, a new writer, uses an element of common currency in young adult fiction, the rebellious adolescent, and makes the jaded reader (me) realize why this is such a rich theme for a novel when it is not homogenized for the market, as so often happens. Marl Silversides is a troubled kid who is sent to a farm as his last chance before an institution. The basic story is that he makes a friend, a simple thing but with wide-ranging effects.
This situation could have resulted in one of those tough-dissolving-into-sentimental kind of young adult novels where everyone has a heart of gold. But Wieler avoids the pitfalls. She doesn't make the social worker a condescending airhead. She tries something harder and more real in characterization. She doesn't sum it all up in some cliche from a T-shirt. She doesn't tell what is happening, she shows it. In scenes where the boys get haircuts, clean a van, and play cards, she demonstrates that growth and change happen in ordinary times, not just during car chases, fights, and confrontations, though she has those, too, and writes with economy and deftness. Last Chance Summer is an example among many of why Western Prairie Producer Books is a publisher to watch.
From one of our newest writers to one of our most long established: James Houston's The Falcon Bow did engender rather mixed reviews, and I, too, have some reservations. The links between it and its predecessor The White Archer are a bit cumbersome. But Houston captures me with the sheer fascination of the world he describes, that white arctic world with its dashes of red -- the eye of an attacking walrus, the feet of a sea-duck, the rosy cheeks of a baby. The passage to adulthood in our culture has a lot to do with the acquisition and mastery of possessions. In Houston's Arctic this passage is stripped down to the essentials: food, transportation, clothing, heat, shelter. And Houston describes these beautifully. The details of packing eggs into skin bags filled with eiderdown for travel, of licking the ivory on a snow-cutting knife to make it smooth while building an igloo -- he describes this so well that for a moment I think I could do it. And it is that feeling of confidence and competence that must be really attractive to young adults in our world. where life skills are things like balancing a cheque-book, and where the passage to adulthood is marked by getting a social insurance number. In one great scene Kungo, the protagonist, takes apart a kayak to reassemble it into a sled. I couldn't help thinking of a generation brought up on transformers. In the world of Falcon Bow such transformations have a purpose: survival.
In Blaine's Way** Monica Hughes does something quite innovative in a young adult novel, something I'll wager gave the marketing department at Irwin a few sticky moments. She tells the story of a boy from age six to manhood and even, by using the framework of a flashback, of him as an old man. I think this framework of reminiscence is what makes the book work so well. An author cannot afford to be nostalgic. Nostalgia saps a story of immediacy. But an old man, telling his life story into a tape recorder for his newborn great-grandson, is going to sound nostalgic. And his memories of a boyhood in the dirty thirties, of going away to war, and of coming home disabled are going to be rambling and slightly romantic. Through the device of the flashback Monica Hughes also manages to do something a young adult author can almost never do. She can give advice. Here is Blaine at the end of his life:
Just don't forget that greed leads to suffering; . . . But there's always freedom to change. And now it's yours, my grandchildren, and yours, young Blaine, the first of the next generation. It's in your hands to make this a better world. (p. 215).
In current young adult writing it seems that we are often so concerned with stylishness that we don't risk things like actually imparting wisdom any more. Hughes takes this risk and succeeds.
In Karleen Bradford's Nine Days Queen*** we don't possibly have the best historical fiction ever written about Lady Jane Grey, who was queen of England for nine days in 1554. But it is real historical fiction, demonstrating the art of taking the known facts, fleshing out the characters and incidents, solving such problems as what to do about historical language, and treading the fine line between remoteness and historical distortion. In short, it answers the demands of both history and fiction. In Canada we don't have much of this tradition, probably because our own recorded history is so recent. And I found Bradford very good on the history. She sorted out the political intrigues rather well and I'm a slow learner in this area. The important thing about this book is that it shows that Canadian publishers and writers now feel that Henry VIII is as appropriate a subject for our attention as Cartier. One more step out of the parochial. I think Karleen Bradford will be a writer to watch as she expands her writing horizons.
Last, and for me best, is Janet Lunn's Shadow in Hawthorn Bay****. This book is representative of a number of welcome trends in Canadian children's writing that I could discuss-the broadening of our choice of settings and subjects the vast improvement in the physical quality of our books and the growth of an individual writer. This is Janet Lunn in her full maturity as a writer. I want to go right to the heart of the matter, to romance. We all know that young adult romances are the economic success story of the eighties. And I've read the odd one myself. What strikes me about most of them is how lacking they are in passion. In these books adolescents are only the market; they are not really the subject of the books. The rich mine of adolescent passion and confusion is, in the series books, almost completely untapped.
Not so in Shadow in Hawthorn Bay. What is it that motivates a young girl to leave her horde, her family, her country, to travel thousands of miles to a new, unknown and unwelcoming land? It is the love of Duncan, Duncan her cousin, Duncan the dark. There are echoes here of Wuthering Heights and of the highly pitched and carefully controlled writing of Mollie Hunter. In comparison, the usual young adult romance is as bland as a Kraft slice. This book made me remember my adolescent thirst for romance. It shook me out of my adult cynicism. Of course, there is much more in Shadow in Hawthorn Bay. There is an adroit use of history and landscape, fine creation of minor character, the not-a-step-wrong pacing, and, most of all, Lunn's writing. Her words are specific, rhythmical and plain. The more emotional the moments the simpler she becomes. This is the book I want as a permanent legacy of 1986.* Reviewed in Canadian Materials vol. XV/I January 1987 p.2l.
** Reviewed in Canadian Materials vol. XV/I January 1987 p.17.
*** Reviewed in Canadian Materials vol. XV/I January 1987 p.14.
**** Reviewed in Canadian Materials vol. XV/I January 1987 p.l8.
Diana Wieler, Last Chance Summrer . Western Producer Prairie Books.1986.
James Houston, The Falcon Boy. McLelland and Stewart. 1986.
Monica Hughes, Blaine's Way. Irwin,1986 .
Karleen Bradford, Nine Days Queen, Scholastic-TAB. 1986.
Janet Lunn, Shadow in Hawthorn Bay. Lester and Orpan Dennys, 1986.
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