CM . . . .
Volume VII Number 8 . . . . December 15, 2000
I had a study and then photography after lunch, so I decided to ditch school and head home early. At least I'd have the streets to myself. As I left the chain-link gates of school behind me, a thought hit me. It's funny how some things can come on you suddenly and it's maybe the first time you've thought it, but it's like something you've known all your life. The world, I discovered, was not a kind place.Ironies like this are the stuff of 15-year-old Ben Conrad's life. He lives in an "Amazonian" household of three sisters and a mother, and yet conversations with girls at school are awkwardly embarrassing. Desperate to prove that he possesses athletic skill, he can't even land a spot on the co-ed volleyball team. Worst of all, he faces constant ridicule and harassment from Claude, a thug who, having learned of Ben's six years of dance classes, taunts him as "Ballerina Boy." Increasingly angry and frustrated at Claude's bullying, Ben wants and needs to do something. Visiting with Bens' family is his Great-Aunt Frieda, a tiny, elderly Mennonite lady. Initially, Ben isn't thrilled at the presence of another woman in the household, but Aunt Frieda (and especially, her cooking!) has undeniable charm, and soon she and Ben develop a bond. She tells him of her history and his - the story of the Mennonites in Russia --and of how Stalinist persecution led to immigration to Canada. Non-violence is the Mennonite way, even in the face of terrorism and threats. And, as Aunt Frieda's story unfolds, Ben begins to understand how the lessons of history are more than lines in a textbook and that non-violence is not necessarily cowardice.
On the whole, I enjoyed reading Men of Stone. Gayle Friesen does two things particularly well: male or female, elder or adolescent, the voices of her characters are absolutely authentic, and this book is funny in a sophisticated way rarely seen in young adult literature. After reading Men of Stone, I wanted to know what someone who is Ben's age would think of the book; 15-year-old Andrew Stoyko accepted the job of "guest reviewer" and offered plenty of positives: Ben's "interesting" life in an all-woman household; the blend of action (Ben's dealings with Claude) and suspense (Ben's worries when his friend Stan runs away from home); the courage and strength shown by Aunt Frieda during Stalin's reign of terror and her ability to withstand its many horrors. Like me, he found the pace of the book somewhat inconsistent: "it was slow moving in the beginning, then sped up, and then really slowed down for about 4 chapters." I don't think that Friesen was always successful at working the historical context of Aunt Frieda's story into the rest of the plot. Still, this is a small weakness. Andrew and I both agree that not only is it a good choice for readers around the age of 15, "it is also a good book for anyone, no matter what age they are."
Joanne Peters is a teacher-librarian at Kelvin High School in Winnipeg, MB.
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