CM . . .
. Volume VIII Number 19 . . . . May 24, 2002
An executive director of a group home for adolescents, Valerie Sherrard has turned her hand to writing an adolescent mystery novel. Her amateur sleuth, Shelby Belgarden, is a grade 10 student at Little River High School which is located in a small Canadian community of some 5000 people. Beginning the novel in January, Sherrard flashes back to the beginning of the school year to bring her readers up-to-date on what has been happening in Shelby's life. Betts Thompson, Shelby's best friend since grade four, has been trying to convince Shelby that Greg Taylor, a new grade 11 student in town, is really Shelby's "Man of her Dreams." However, Shelby, who has yet to have her first date, has her cap set on Nick Jarvis, a self-centered jock and the school "hunk," who is presently dating Jane Goodfellow. Over a period of a few weeks, four fires strike the small community, and, while the first two were initially attributed to accidental causes, the third fire confirms that all of them were actually cases of arson. When it becomes known amongst the town's gossips that the wife of Malcolm Taylor, Greg's dad, had died in a fire in their former community, Malcolm becomes the prime suspect.
The story resumes its forward action in the new year when Shelby passes by yet another fire and finds nearby a gasoline-smelling knitted mitt which she recognizes as belonging to Greg, a happening which, therefore, places him at the top of her suspect list. While snooping at the Taylors' home on a social visit, Shelby discovers that her suspicions about Greg were completely wrong. Malcolm Taylor, who is really Dr. Taylor, a former university psychology professor, provides Shelby with the key to unlocking the true identity of the arsonist, a book entitled "When Children Set Fires." Accepting Dr. Taylor's knowledge that most arsonists are younger people who have been abused, frequently sexually, Shelby sets out to match the characteristics and behaviors such individuals might manifest with those exhibited by the high school students she knows. Like all writers of good mysteries, Sherrard keeps the guilty person's identity hidden until the book's end, but a second reading will reveal how, throughout the novel, Sherrard planted clues that, in retrospect, clearly pointed to one person.
By introducing a romantic triangle involving Shelby, Nick and Greg, Sherrard takes Out of the Ashes beyond the typical adolescent mystery novel in which the protagonist, the sleuth, never grows in terms of character. Another nice touch is Sherrard's not providing a happy-ever-after romantic ending although she does leave hope for those readers who need it.
Jenkinson teaches courses in YA literature at the Faculty of Education,
the University of Manitoba.
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