CM . . . .
Volume VI Number 18 . . . . May 12, 2000
"That cake and nog probably contained six hundred calories minimum," considered Paula. "It takes running up and down once to burn ten calories. . . so I'll have to run up and down these steps sixty times."Paula Romaniuk, 15, is preoccupied with her weight. Posters of pencil-thin models like Kate Moss or actresses like Calista Flockhart decorate her bedroom walls. When a pulled back muscle sends her to the clinic in September of her grade ten year, Paula sees Dr. Tavish who recognizes the signs of a serious eating disorder. The doctor proposes that either she see him weekly and try to control her obsession with weight, or he will tell her parents. Paula reluctantly agrees.
Over several weeks, Paula weighs in as Tavish requires, but her wearing loose clothing to hide the weights she wears and loading up on water skew the results. Tavish finally calls her bluff, informs her parents, and hospitalizes Paula in an attempt to save her life. While even Paula's younger brother, Eric, notices her weight loss, Paula still sees herself as grossly overweight and ugly. Just before Christmas, her mother, herself a dieter, begs the doctor to allow Paula to come home.
At home, Paula escapes immediately after eating to go for a walk. Trying to burn off calories, she races up and down the library steps only to collapse. With "a tingling throughout her limbs and a prickly cold feeling at the back of her scalp," Paula metamorphoses into Marta, an orphaned teenager living during the 1915 massacre of Armenians by the Turks. She is among the 1.75 million deported Armenians, many of whom were forced to march 400 miles across the Syrian Desert. Marta watches her sister taken by a captain of the Young Turk army and finds herself and her friend, Kevork, designated as adults and forced from the protection of the Red Cross orphanage.
Marta survives the horrors of the trek through the desert, escapes, and finally returns to the orphanage. During her first night there, she changes back to Paula. "Marta no longer existed. She had just stepped inside of Paula." The "dream" sequence convinces Paula that "eating is medicine." As she works through the program at Homewood, a "collaborative weight normalization treatment program," to conquer her eating disorder, Paula tries to make sense of her Marta experience. Her grandmother admits her own Armenian roots, but she can tell Paula few details because she came to Canada as a child. "I can remember arriving at the Georgetown Boys' Farm when I was a girl," she recalls. "There was a war. There was no food. And hundreds of children were huddled together in darkness." Paula recognizes the connection between her dream and her present, especially after seeing Gramma Pauline's keepsakes.
Skrypuch underscores the difficulty of finding information about the Armenian massacres by showing Paula's struggle to gather enough material for her school project. Information Skrypuch gathered from a survivor of the massacres, Aram Aiviazian, enabled her to provide specific and detailed descriptions of the horrors Paula experienced as Marta. Skrypuch admits "no female survivor was willing to tell what she had lived through. With much speculation based on my extensive research, I pieced together the lives of the Armenian girls and wrote The Hunger."
By merging Paula's struggle with an eating disorder and Marta's struggle to survive the Turkish atrocities, Skrypuch creates a narrative that highlights the physical and emotional effects of Paula's self-inflicted "hunger" and Marta's enforced starvation. The Paula/Marta character is compelling and engaging; the other characters receive limited development. Both eating disorders and genocide are emotionally charged, complex, and baffling issues demanding a reasonably high level of reader maturity. According to NEDIC (The National Eating Disorder Information Centre), "Canadian children in grade three and four say they'd rather lose a parent, get cancer, or live through nuclear war than be fat." If the image of the ideal body influences children at such an early stage of their development, then readers of all ages might gain from exposure to the realities of anorexia and bulimia.
Darleen Golke is the teacher-librarian at Fort Richmond Collegiate in Winnipeg, MB.
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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.