CM . . .
. Volume IX Number 7 . . . . November 29, 2002
Reviewed from prepublication copy.
Choyce, the author of more than a dozen YA novels, tackles the subject of unresolved grief. The book’s 16-year-old protagonist introduces himself as existing in three versions.
There was the regular, not-too-interesting private me: Martin Emerson. Then there was the enigmatic public persona of me that was created for the Internet at Emerso.com.....Then there was the no-name Martin, Martin number three. This version couldn’t remember parts of the past and sometimes couldn’t remember where he was the night before.
The regular Martin becomes, in fact, quite interesting to the adolescent reader. At school, however, Martin is a self-acknowledged loner, geek and “intellectual snot.” Normally, such an individual would become the target of bullies or be rejected by the in-crowd, but Martin is being cut some slack because his mother had recently died following a four-year illness, one which had led to her being hospitalized for the final two months of her life. The second Martin, with the assistance of Darrell (aka the Egg Man), his sole friend and a computer nerd, has created an untraceable, anonymous website which has seven parts. To these sections, which bear headings such as “Meaning of Life,” “Opinions,” and “Advice,” Martin posts entries throughout the novel. One section of the website is titled “Art,”and while it contains recognized works of art, it also includes landscapes created by Martin’s mother, but Martin number three has no memories of scanning his mother’s art into the site.
As noted in the introductory “excerpt,” because Martin has not been engaging in any of the overt “acting-out” behaviors that one would expect from an adolescent whose mother has recently died, he has been sent to a psychiatrist. In an effort to show a little psychiatrist-pleasing rebellious anger, Martin takes up smoking albeit briefly, considers joining his older sister Lilly in some body piercing, and participates in Darrell’s acts of random “egg violence.” However, none of these acts cause Martin to remove what he calls the emotional “firewalls” that he knows he has created around that part of his life connected to his mother’s death. Martin’s home offers little emotional support for his advertisement writing father, whom Martin and Lilly have nicknamed the Invisible Man, has retreated into his work and mindlessly watching television. Lilly, when not getting more body parts pierced, is absorbed in her rocky relationship with boyfriend Jake and only occasionally reaches out to Martin.
Driving to Alaska during a summer holiday period had been one of Martin’s mother’s dreams, one that she had not realized, and, in the book, this trip becomes a kind of metaphor. When Jake dumps Lilly, she decides that mid-school year is the time to head for Alaska, and she does not have too much trouble convincing her father, who had settled for a mind-numbing “career” in advertising when he really wanted to be a poet, that now is the time to go. Early in the trip, however, Martin realizes that all three of them are using going to Alaska as a way of running away from something rather than going to somewhere for positive reasons as had been Martin’s mother’s original goal. With this self-realization, Martin begins to confront the buried memories around his mother’s final day, and, in so doing, begins the reintegration of the three Martins. The process is not easy for he must “shoulder the sky” and now carry the weight of all that he has previously ignored.
Unlike most of Choyce’s previous YA titles, Shoulder the Sky is not a plot-based book that depends upon a lot of action to engage readers. Instead, it is a study in character, and, as such, it unfolds slowly as Choyce feeds readers bits of the three Martins. Choyce also creates a most interesting cast of supporting characters, including two “imperfect” adults, Dave (the psychiatrist) and Mr. Miller, aka HMMWMT (heavy metal mud wrestling math teacher), who spouts philosophy and plays acoustic guitar during math class. Secondary adolescent characters include the aforementioned Darrell whose immediate life goal is to hack into Microsoft, Scott Rutledge, the school’s “golden boy” who is suddenly killed in a motorcycle accident, and Kathy Bringhurst, Martin’s love interest but someone who only considers him to be a “friend” whose role it is to listen to her pre- and post-death pinings for Scott. Those adolescent readers who may be tempted to skip over Martin’s many web entries (which appear in a different font) in order to get on with the “story” will miss much. Despite the book’s heavy subject matter, Choyce has interjected numerous moments of wry humor.
Jenkinson teaches courses in YA literature at the Faculty of Education,
the University of Manitoba.
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