CM . . .
. Volume IX Number 18. . . . May 9, 2003
By the time they got to The Pit, they'd slowed to a walk, sharing swallows from the bottle they'd snagged earlier off a bum on Wickham. Bigger had been worried they'd catch some kind of disease, but Reef and Jink had laughed at him, called him an old woman, shamed him into taking the first gulp. The rum had burned their throats, but it took the edge off their rancor and put as Reef's grandmother used to say "a bit of a glitter"on what otherwise had been a lousy day.
Almost four decades ago, the appearance of S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders helped to change the content of North American YA literature by revealing a dark underside of adolescence. While the book's enduring theme causes it still to be read today, the romantic portrayal of Ponyboy and his friends simply no longer rings true. The contemporary "Greasers" and "Socs" can be found, however, in Aker's The First Stone which powerfully captures what it can be like to be an adolescent member of today's marginalized underclass. Literally a bastard, Halifax's Chad "Reef" Kennedy, now 17, was orphaned at birth and raised first by his alcoholic grandfather and supportive grandmother, aka Nan. Following the grandfather's death, the parenting role fell solely to Nan, but after her death from cancer when Reef was nine, he became a ward of Social Services, and his life since then has involved a series of foster homes.
Aker has divided his novel into three parts, and in the opening section, readers get to meet the novel's major players and first encounter Reef in June, as he, with his buddies, Jink and Bigger, is about to toss a rock from an overpass on to the cars on the highway below. When a passing police car interrupts that intent, the threesome heads to an derelict hotel where they again find trouble. While fleeing from the occupants of a truck the trio has vandalized, Reef finds himself again on the overpass, and this time he lets the stone fly, hitting the windshield of a car.
The sole occupant of the car that Reef's stone strikes is Elizabeth "Leeza" Hemming, also 17. The rock's crashing into the windshield initiates a chain reaction of vehicular collisions. While Leeza is the only person injured in the multiple crashes, her injuries have left her hospitalized in a coma. Although Reef believed he had eluded his pursuer from the vandalized vehicle, he had not, and this person witnessed Reef's criminal act.
The novel's setting them moves to a courtroom where Chad Kennedy, as Reef is now formally addressed, has already pleaded guilty and the court hearing is just to provide the judge with the relevant facts prior to her sentencing. Since Chad aka Reef is only 17, he is to be sentenced under the terms of The Young Offenders Act, and when the judge's decision is made known, Elizabeth's parents, Diane and Jack Morrison, who have been faithfully attending the hearing, are outraged. Chad/Reef is assigned to a group home for a year, must attend high school, take part in two extra curricular activities and volunteer at one of Halifax's rehabilitation centres. Finally, when the supervisor of the group home believes Chad/Reef is ready, he is to "conduct a series of presentations to high school classes and youth groups telling about your experiences and the insight you've gained as a result of them."
One of the strength's of the book's opening section is that readers have also been provided with some information about Leeza as Aker, as he does throughout the novel, has moved back and forth between the perspectives of the two principal characters. Consequently, while Elizabeth at this point is to Reef just a name on the TV news and in the newspapers, Leeza is already someone that readers have started to come to know, and they are aware, among other things, that Leeza and her parents are grieving their older sister's/daughter's recent cancer-caused death.
The novel's second part finds both central characters in their respective "institutions." Leeza, who has come out of her coma, has been sent to the Halifax Rehabilitation Centre while Reef is at North Hills Group Home. Aker introduces readers to the major "inhabitants" of both places and shows how both Reef and Leeza are resisting what their "healing" places have to offer them. By chance, Reef's requirement for voluntary service finds him at the Halifax Rehabilitation Centre in August where he eventually comes to work with Leeza, their first connection being that each has lost a loved one to cancer. While some readers might question how something like their meeting could actually happen, Aker has carefully set up the situation. Because Reef is a Young Offender, the reasons for his volunteering could not be shared with the rehab centre nor could his name be used in news reports. Leeza's mother had remarried, but Leeza, who was referred to by her legal given name in news reports, had kept her original surname. Consequently, when the two encounter each other, neither has any reason to assume that they had any shared previous "history," and each, for her/his reasons, elects not to disclose what brought her/him to the centre. Consequently, readers can watch their relationship grow and cause changes in them. Nonetheless, readers also know that it is only a matter of time before the paths of Reef and one of Leeza's parents must cross. The only questions are "When?" and "What will be the parental reaction?" The inevitable occurs, and Diane Morrison's protective maternal response is one of extreme rage, but the verbal rocks she throws at Reef, while hurtful, shatter the last bit of his tough facade, allowing who he really is to finally emerge.
In the book's concluding section, which occurs almost a year later and which sees Reef doing one of his school talks and Leeza now back at home, Aker provides a tough Robert Cormier-like ending. For those who absolutely demand a happy-ever-after outcome, there is the very slimmest of possibilities that the two, as adults and much later in life, could possibly reconnect.
The First Stone is rich in characterization, not just in terms of the major characters but also the secondary ones, and Aker even provides readers with closure for these secondary characters as well in the novel's final section. Unlike Hinton's The Outsiders where her "tough" characters were somewhat cardboard, especially in their speech, Aker's "bad boys" occasionally use the language of the street, the world they know and inhabit. Those who would choose to censor The First Stone because of Reef's "coarse" utterances might reflect on the book's title, which is taken from Christ's injunction in John 8:7, "Let the person who is without sin cast the first stone."
Dave Jenkinson teaches courses in YA literature at the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba.
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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.