CM . . .
. Volume IX Number 16. . . . April 11, 2003
But books were my
friends. And later, they became my solace in a world filled with disappointments.
For a short girl with temperamental skin and hair the color of an
aging mouse and a speech disorder, books grew to be more than mere
companions. They were my world of love.
After reading innumerable books about the pain of human relationships, I realized that love, unrequited - love that is unreturned - was, for me, the saddest condition. It involved the slow strangulation of the aorta. The poisonous twisting of that great artery always lessened - cruelly, I thought - just enough to allow the victim to live, but in a state of constant deep pain and never-ending sorrow.
Under a new title, Tundra Books releases Toxic Love, a collection of 10 stories by Winnipeg's Linda Holeman, originally published in 1995 as Saying Good-Bye. The stories have been rearranged, and one story title has been changed from "Toxic Love" to "Unrequited Love." Already familiar to some librarians, teachers, and readers, these thought-provoking and perceptive narratives manage effectively to capture difficult and often awkward coming-of-age moments with clarity and compassion. Issues of alienation, loneliness, love, physical and sexual abuse, date rape, mother-daughter relationships, poverty, loss of a loved one, death, even ethnic/cultural conflicts emerge as young people struggle to find their place in a complex world.
The desire to gain acceptance among peers sometimes motivates young people to engage in questionable behaviors. Rebecca, in "Something Fishy," bored with being "slow and steady," claims a relationship to a celebrity and sees her lie spin out of control, although for a brief time she shines as "one of the major suns in the great school solar system." Lori, of "Looking Out for Dayna," "thinks she knows how to patch everything;" however, she fails to "fix" Dayna whose family proves even more dysfunctional than Lori's own.
The theme of love and the desire to be loved is explored in several stories. In "Unrequited Love," Carla remains mute in class rather than stutter and hides in the world of books; however, she becomes obsessed with love and subsequently completely misinterprets who the object of her favourite teacher's unrequited love really is. Jessie, in "Starlight, Star Bright," heavy-heartedly waits for Dean and his "candy-apple red" Corvette "until it's too late to go anywhere but the parking spot Dean liked to go to at the end of an evening. Or anytime." Angel ("Show Time") almost succumbs to Rick's "tiny flecks of gold in the dark brown of his irises" and his entreaties to cheat and acquire free summer-fair admission tickets for his "in-group." Anxious to please her boyfriend, Hayley ("Shasta") fails to take action and stop a date rape perpetrated by his buddy and suffers a "horrible suffocating feeling ... that something had happened to her too."
Like Budge Wilson's "fractured families" (Fractures: Family Stories), some of Holeman's families are "flawed on some level." In "Baba Lu," Grandmother McLaren treats Natalie's beloved Baba with barely contained contempt for her ethnicity and demands of her daughter, "how can you live in a place like" Winnipeg's North End "and bring Natalie up here!" Blake, in "Sweet Bird of Youth," impulsively invites his young cousin to stay with them while Aunt Bev's in the hospital because he knows that her live-in boyfriend is a sexual predator. Lori, in "Looking Out for Dayna," contemptuously nicknames her mother's boyfriend, Weeny, while Dayna calls her mother's live-in boyfriend Vaseline, a "slimeball" predator. Inez, of "Pas Seul," realizes her mother "doesn't even seem aware that she's the one who creates the constant tension that hovers around Inez like a swarm of hornets." When Mom waxes eloquent about "Dad and [their] devotion to each other," Jessie, in "Starlight, Star Bright," derisively reminds her of his not showing up for days at a time, his spending "his whole paycheck on booze," and his blackening her mother's eye and spliting her lip.
Losing a parent expands fractures and demands acceptance and courage from young people. "This is the first summer I've been to [Loon] Island without my dad," Liza muses. "It's also the first summer I've been alive and he hasn't." After a painful week, she fulfills her promise to spread his ashes at his birthplace, spending the night beside his little fishing shack, pulling "the small metal canister" out of her backpack, tipping it, and allowing the wind "blowing with quiet persistence" to carry the ashes away under a sky "turned from black felt to a bold, gloriously sparkling blanket." For Blake, dealing with his father's death entails rescuing his fatherless young cousin from harm. Lori, on the other hand, admits that "both my parents seem to screw things up," and she acknowledges the painful loss of her father to a "new wife ... only ten years older" than she and to a ten-month-old half brother.
Holeman successfully captures the quintessence of adolescence; her characters are skillfully drawn and believable as they confront difficulties and find creative solutions. The stories resonate with many recognizable minutiae of daily experiences - the "running the gauntlet" ritual with "the preening strut of the girls, the growling and yipping and exaggerated tongue-hanging of the boys;" the "unspoken pact between the less-than popular girls that never lets one of [them] feel too alone;" the "right" clothes; the agony of failure and exhilaration of success; the "teachers, who tried too hard to act the same age as their students, only emphasizing the hopeless chasm between them;" the exotic newcomer on the locker-room hit list; the horn-honking studs; a mother's euphemisms for that forbidden word, "sex;" the realization "that no one likes someone who knows all the answers; " the tongue-tying shyness; "the rush that starts things happening in your head and body when you connect with someone;" the first kiss; the "horrible dull red" cheeks and neck "that shout [feelings] to everyone;" the entry to the "mysterious world of womanhood."
The narratives are rich with detail and imagery, but comfortable with familiar particulars and "oh yeah" moments. Holeman allows each narrator full rein in storytelling using realistic dialogue and thought-provoking scenarios. The reader is drawn into the world of the protagonists, sharing their dilemmas, cheering them on, and accepting their decisions, some of which clearly are painful and unexpected.
This collection should be part of every junior and senior high school library - a good choice for book talks. Add it to your shopping list for birthdays and other gift occasions.
Darleen Golke is a librarian 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.
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.