by Mary Woodbury
Orca Book Publishers
191 pages, 1998
Teen Novel Bites Without Chewing
Reviewed by Rick Lockyer
Teen fiction is perhaps one of the most challenging genres any author can tackle.
The essence of adolescence is to explore one's uniqueness. The exploration often takes a route that includes heightened self-consciousness and awkwardness.
The challenge for any author is to create characters that the audience identifies with and continues to want to read more about. Woodbury's target audience already has a predisposition toward feeling like "no-one understands" or "no-one can help me with my problems, I'm on my own". The challenge is that much greater for her to create characters and a storyline her young readers will feel close to and identify with.
Mary Woodbury's success in this regard is mixed. In many of her descriptions of the family dynamics or the feelings of the main character she is remarkably astute. There are other aspects where the story simply misses the mark and even risks being labeled corny.
She writes about young Brad Greaves, a junior high student living in a small Canadian prairie town. After moving to the small town with his mother, making new friends, getting a paper route and joining the Boy Scouts, Brad's world is shaken when his self-centered, short tempered father returns home after a prolonged absence.
Brad has to contend with his rapidly growing body, his own emotions and short temper, and his strained relationship with his father. But more significantly, Brad is becoming increasingly aware of his lack of knowledge about his own family's history: the more he tries to find out the truth, the more he is rebuffed by his parents. Confused by these and other significant events, Brad often reacts by withdrawing physically and emotionally until he begins to learn the value of the people around him. Affection of any kind was a rarity in Brad's household and he has a hard time knowing how to be close. When a friend's Mom puts her arm around his shoulder his instant reaction is to shrink away, then to worry about whether he had hurt her feelings, rather than questioning why he should have such a reaction to someone he likes.
Woodbury is a best selling author of books for young readers, a former elementary school teacher and a children's performer. She very accurately describes the communication dynamics that occur in a family determined to keep its past a secret. She is equally successful in her characterizations of Brad's father -- a bitter, sullen man with the most to lose should his secret past be revealed -- and a man who dislikes his own son for having ideas and interests of his own.
Woodbury's background as a teacher is apparent as she describes the difficulties Brad experiences: the conflicting emotions, the self doubt and above all, the feeling that his problems were far and away the most onerous of anyone he knew. In spite of his being a full-fledged geek, Brad is likeable, particularly because -- to some extent -- most readers can identify with the struggles that engage him.
I have yet to meet a 13-year-old whose best friend's favourite curse is "Buffalo biscuits". Brad Greaves' daily existence is the paper route, school, the weekly good deed project for Scouts, then a hayride and singsong, followed by a trip home to cook dinner and then to work on his homemade telescope. His nemesis, the nasty, foul-mouthed "Buckles" is actually right when he calls Brad "goody goody" though Woodbury's description of a kid from the tough side of town is as trite and overly simple as the dialogue between Brad and friends.
The portrayal is tolerable throughout most of the book, until the family secret begins to reveal itself. Woodbury tackles a serious issue that deserves an honest portrayal, and sanitizes it for an "Ozzie and Harriet" portrayal that can only offend all but the most naïve young reader.
The author could have chosen any number of issues to use as the family secret around which the dynamics were built. Writing the character of Bradley's father as an alleged sexual offender against young boys is a brave choice that has the potential to be a high impact, informative statement. Instead it is an offensive, whitewashed storyline that hints of "poor me" on the father's behalf.
His father was speaking "-- things were blown all out of proportion. The second time was just a lapse. The doctor says I'm making real progress. Better than all those criminals. Better than those stupid people in That Place."
Because the truth comes in bits and pieces and is never finally completed, the reader must fill in some of the small blanks, and can easily deduce that what Brad's father did was very likely criminal. Rather than taking responsibility, his father blames the community for "over reacting" and being too judgmental, and forcing the family to move.
It appears that Mary Woodbury is attempting to condemn the father's past in her use of it as a literary tool to highlight the family dynamics of a young boy growing up in a house full of secrets. The Leave It to Beaver version that she writes runs the risk of touting some unpleasant unspoken messages that some secrets are best left hidden, and that love and hugs conquer all. No mention of intense family therapy. Nor does the author do more than hint at the importance for children to understand that it is their right to speak up if anything happens that hurts or frightens them.
To add insult to injury the main characters' dialogue throughout the book is less like the language of children and more like the polite dialogue some adults ascribe to "good" kids.
In fairness, Woodbury is writing to an audience whom editors believe will not read a book longer than 200 pages. In trying to cover too much ground in too few pages, she merely glosses over most of the relevant aspects in her characters' lives.
In essence Mary Woodbury does to her young readers what Brad's family does to him: treats a growing young mind like an infant incapable of understanding the point if they are told anything more than the barest of facts. The fact is that Woodbury's version of being a teen might make interesting reading for the 10-12 age group, but those living it will no doubt be bored with Woodbury's corny presentation of the life and problems of a 90s teenager.
Rick Lockyer is a Canadian writer, photographer and social worker who lives in Vancouver, B.C.