________________ CM . . . . Volume VII Number 17 . . . . April 27, 2001

cover Raven's Flight.

Diane Silvey.
Vancouver, BC: Raincoast Books, 2000.
120 pp., pbk., $9.95.
ISBN 1-55192-344-0.

Grades 6 and up / Ages 11 and up.

Review by Cora Lee.

**1/2 /4


This neglected old dump couldn't be where her sister lived. Marcie's letters home told of how well she was doing and how much she loved her modern new apartment. This was a rundown hotel that rented rooms by the week -- not really an apartment at all. The sign out front read: NO DRUGS. NO PARTIES. NO VISITORS AFTER 10 P.M.

It was after 10 p.m. now, but she had to take a chance Rita would let her in before a landlord spotted her. Raven tried the tarnished doorknob to see if it was locked, but as she turned it, it almost fell off in her hands. The lock had been jimmied so often the landlord must have given up trying to fix it. Raven opened the door cautiously. The rusty hinges creaked. It took her eyes a few seconds to adjust to the dim interior.

The stairwell lay in total darkness. A burnt-out light bulb dangled haphazardly from a long, frayed cord above the stairs. She made her way gingerly up the lopsided stairs toward a light from one of the upstairs rooms. Something moved furtively in the shadows. A rat raced past her and down the stairs. Raven shuddered, took a deep breath and continued.

At the top landing she began looking for her sister's room, number seven. She located it an knocked on the door. A hollow echo resounded along the hall.

A door down the hall opened and a scruffy, middle-aged man peered out. "There's nobody there, sweet thing. Why don't you come and wait here until they get back?" he wheezed. He wore a soiled undershirt and baggy pants held up with a cord. He reeked of alcohol, even several feet away, and he swayed a little before retreating into his room.

Such is Raven's introduction to sister Marcie's big dream. Raven has left her safe home in Egmont to search for Marcie who has disappeared into Vancouver's illicit drug and prostitution scene. Bad as this first night seems, worse lay ahead. Raven's cousin Rita quickly ditches responsibility for Raven. Alone now in her search, Raven's naivete is brutally assaulted by the scenes of drug dealing, homelessness and poverty rampant in the downtown eastside. Her terror abates somewhat when she befriends Ben and Bertie, a boy and an elderly woman, respectively, living an uncertain life in an abandoned warehouse. Their tips, and advice from an assortment of other street regulars, safeguard Raven as she seeks the truth about her sister.

      What Raven finds is so often, so dismissively, summarized by a few sentences in the paper, a brief minute on the six o'clock news. For Raven, of course, it's much more personal, and so too, it becomes for readers of Raven's Flight. Author Diane Silvey plumbs what the paucity of news copy hides--the tragic circumstances and real personalities of a depraved landscape. She does so by ruthlessly describing the fallout from alcohol and substance abuse. Crime, poverty, addiction, and, to a lesser extent, prostitution are exposed in gritty detail. Silvey doesn't try to spare the sensibilities of her young readers. She's meticulously mapped the area as well. Vancouverites can easily visualize Raven's bus ride into the city and the streets she walks to some of the city's most infamous spots: the corner of Hastings and Main, the washrooms in front of Carnegie Centre, Pigeon Park.

      Stripping away the anonymity that leads to apathy, Silvey gives face and soul to some memorable characters. Ben, Bertie, Gertrude, Anna and Robert are made real with brief but moving histories. Silvey is less successful with the relative newcomers: Marcie's lengthy self-examinations, and Melissa's detailed explanation of her situation may be necessary for the information they convey, but sound contrived for just that purpose. Regrettably, the cast of street characters overwhelm sensible, normal Raven. She's a little too easy to identify with, when a hero should be larger than life. Nonetheless, all the characters serve Silvey well, drawing compassion from readers who can't possibly know their realities in full.

      Silvey's plot construction is less effective. Marcie, J.L. and Lonnie all use Raven's room without once running into Raven. This entering and exiting is more reminiscent of a comic skit than real life. Raven's search, too, is advanced only through an unimaginative chance meeting with Norm. The subsequent rescue ends too quickly, leaving scant opportunity for tension to build. Marcie's easy discovery of J.L's sister Melissa seems a convenient coincidence, as does Raven's almost incidental bust of the poaching ring, a gratuitous subplot introduced at the start, then abandoned until the end.

      Fittingly, Silvey ends her story by telling us not only what happens to Raven and Marcie but also to the regulars who dominate the book. The happy endings for Ben, Robert and Anna counterbalance both the horrors witnessed and the sobering fates of other, not-so-lucky victims, revealed so effectively in a memorial witnessed by Raven.

      Despite the note of optimism, however, the author never lets us forget why Raven's Flight was written. With her book, Silvey has drawn much-needed attention to the plight of people desperately in need. She's also armed young people with the awareness they need against drugs, alcohol and the promise of an easy answer to problems at home. Finally, hopefully, she has given "those who wanted to write home" both the means and the courage to do so.


Cora Lee is a writer and editor living in Vancouver, BC. She is also the BC Regional Officer for the Canadian Children's Book Center.

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

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ISSN 1201-9364