________________ CM . . . . Volume V Number 14 . . . . March 12, 1999

cover Trial by Fire.

Sheila Dalton.
Toronto, ON: Napoleon Publishing (Dist. by Addison Wesley Longman), 1998.
207 pp., paper, $8.95.
ISBN 0-929141-63-6.

Subject Headings:
Foster children-Juvenile fiction.
Racially mixed children-Juvenile fiction.
Arson-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 8-11 / Ages 13-16.
Review by Darleen Golke.

*** /4


"Nathan, I'm sorry ..." his teacher began. But Nathan was out the door and running. Hard enough that, after a few intense minutes, his legs and lungs hurt so much they blotted out all other pains.

Was there something wrong with him, that this betrayal hurt so much? It wasn't as if he'd never done anything wrong. But to be thought guilty of something like that - something he'd never do - by someone he thought knew him as he really was - Nathan couldn't bear it. And what if his teacher talked to Mrs. Magnani? Or, worse, the police? The police wouldn't care why his teacher thought he'd done it. Officer Holt would probably toss him into the nearest jail and throw away the key. He had to find out who set that fire!

For Nathan Jones, 17, "running meant freedom" that would "empty his head of what he'd done, his mom, the Group Home, what the kids at school were saying about him. And maybe even old man Whitmore." Since his mother sent him to Children's Aid after a dangerous prank with his buddies, Nathan's life has been on a downward spiral. Placed in foster care with the Whitmores in Bridgeford, Nathan links up with Sally Carruthers, another outsider. Their relationship develops nicely until the night he sees someone lob a burning torch into a window of the Carruthers' house. Before he can pursue the fleeing figure, the police arrest him on suspicion of arson. Although they release him, he is branded a suspect, and Officer Holt promises, "I'll be watching you, kid."

      Nathan's investigation to clear his name and find the truth leads him through a variety of conflicts and complications to a dramatic climax and a satisfactory conclusion. As his relationship with Sally deteriorates, his suspicions of her brother, Brad, increase, and he ultimately comes into violent conflict with Brad's gang. Whitmore's abuse escalates into a brutal attack that results in Nathan's removal from the foster home. Through all the discord, Nathan emerges with new insights and realizes "that for the first time in his life he had choices. And that felt good."

      Nathan's primary goal is to get home to his mom and younger siblings. His white mom has raised him; he's never seen his Cree father. His only interest in native culture is in Indian healers, a career he thinks he might like to pursue. Jenny Twofeathers, a former foster child of the Whitmores, comes to stay while doing research for a university paper. Nathan resents, resists, and then accepts Jenny who bullies him into attending native events like a pow wow and a healing ceremony, and tries to persuade him to acknowledge and accept his heritage. "You need me," she tells him, "to get in touch with the native inside you."

      Dalton adds Trial by Fire, her first young adult novel, to her published works. The novel presents some standard problems -- dysfunctional families, prejudice and stereotyping, identity crisis, relationships; then throws arson, murder, gangs, abuse, violence, drugs, foster care, and aboriginal healing rituals into the mixture. Nathan's character develops against a collection of stock character types - the sexy girlfriend, the abusive foster father, the bullied wife, the sympathetic social worker, the tough cop, the teacher/friend who betrays, the addicted mother, the teenage "druggie." The plot moves briskly, saturated with obstacles, betrayals, conflicts, and a remarkable number of "problems" that Nathan must overcome. However, Dalton concludes the story on an optimistic note with Nathan deciding that "in the future he'd be running towards, not away from, something."

      Trial by Fire bears The Canadian Children's Book Centre Choice seal.


Darleen Golke is the teacher-librarian at Fort Richmond Collegiate in Winnipeg, MB.

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

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ISSN 1201-9364