CM . . .
. Volume IX Number 21 . . . . June 20, 2003
Souls of a Feather continues the adventures of 17-year-old Jay Maytwayashung, introduced in Spirits of a Feather (2001), who left his Northern Manitoba home and settled in the city of Winnipeg "down south." In the "Preface," Shirriff includes a cast of characters as background information for readers as he moves Jay through his coming-of-age journey of discovery. Two new characters, Californians Misty and Troy, whom Jay meets on the flight home from San Francisco, join Jay's circle of acquaintance and receive the same Good Samaritan treatment from Big Phil as did Jay on his arrival in the city.
The novel opens with Jay's flying back to Winnipeg from San Francisco after learning that Sue, his estranged girlfriend, has been hospitalized, mysteriously traumatized, and has asked for him. Over the next 18 months, despite strong opposition and numerous roadblocks raised by Sue's father, Jay not only helps Sue recover from her unspecified ailment, but persuades her to accept her parent's offer of an apartment, encourages her to take a job, and eventually asks her to marry him so they can live "happily ever after." Supported by friends and acquaintances, Jay successfully overcomes whatever obstacles obstruct his path.
In this sequel, Shirriff assigns his characters the task of delivering lectures on a broad variety of subjects using the same sanitized and pedantic language introduced in Spirits of a Feather. Vegetarians, vegans, New Age, Feng Shui, Hutterites, Baha'i, Hasidic Jews, Shamanism, gays, transsexuals, homosexuality, surrogate motherhood, sentencing circles, even Manitoba marijuana are topics addressed. The travelogue mode continues adding Montreal to the ongoing descriptions of Winnipeg and its surroundings. In a bizarre plot twist, Jay and his friends, Jimmy, Becky, and Tanya, spend an all-expenses-paid weekend in Montreal thanks to a mysterious benefactor, Sue's father, whose Machiavellian plan is to discredit Jay, separate him from Sue, and strand him far from home and broke.
Jay acknowledges his First Nations cultural background but continues the quest to learn more about his white father. His mother and sister appear, coming south to meet Sue, her parents, and Jay's new friends in preparation for the wedding festivities. Touchy social issues like prejudice, racism, alcohol and substance abuse lie below the surface, but never erupt in the carefully controlled reality created in this determinedly moral tale. Minor details, like how Jay and Sue will manage on earnings from minimum wage jobs while Jay pursues a university education, or how pawning a Rolex finances a trip to San Francisco and a return trip from Montreal, are conveniently disregarded. Inconsistencies, like Sue's accepting a new job in one chapter only to be back at the old job in the next chapter, plague the plot. Finally after laboriously structuring 22 chapters of profuse detail, suddenly in the second last chapter Shirriff switches to rapid-fire diary-style entries for a week; in the final chapter, he concludes with nine date-entries covering August to June, and six wedding day time-entries. A good editor may well have corrected some of the structural problems as well as the annoying grammatical errors.
Jay is an engaging character, commendably eager for further education and a happy and successful life with Sue, but he has limited resources to achieve his goals. Presumably his way will be smoothed by the generous support of his new mother-in-law and the grudging financial contributions of his father-in-law. The supporting characters generally are one-dimensional stereotypes ranging from flamboyantly gay Steve to the curmudgeonly straight George.
Young people who relocate from Northern Manitoba to Winnipeg might well be astonished to read of Jay's smooth transition to life in the "south." Few would conveniently find a surrogate father like Phil, a girlfriend from a wealthy family like Sue, a big brother like Steve, an understanding employer like Han Sing, or a spirit guide like J. B. Fewer still would so seamlessly adapt to life in an entirely different and sometimes hostile culture relying on the "kindness of strangers" (apologies to Williams). The slow-paced action, stilted dialogue, stereotypical characters, and weighty lecture topics may well deter all but the most tenacious of readers. Shirriff has the ingredients of a good story; unfortunately, his determination to educate his readers by "telling all" about his obviously impressive research interferes with the storytelling.
Each of the 24 chapters begins with a black and white photograph explained in the "Notes on Illustrations." An "Appendix: The Universality of the Golden Rule" and a "Bibliography of Websites" complete the educational experience of Souls of a Feather.
Recommended with reservations.
Darleen Golke is a librarian in Winnipeg, MB.
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