Now that I've wrested my copy of Sarah Withrow's Bat Summer
from my younger daughter, I can begin the difficult task of containing my enthusiasm for this book within the confines of a short review. Yes, this is a book with a "bat" theme, following such successes as Jannell Cannon's exquisite Stella Luna
and Canadian Kenneth Oppel's animal fantasy, Silverwing
Cannon's and Oppel's bats take on charming human personalities and engage in anthropomorphized adventures. Withrow's twist on the theme is a story about the very human Lucy who has come to believe she is a bat, and fellow twelve-year-old Terence, who is drawn into her troubled world. Here's Lucy:
"Want to hear about the Midget Employment Stabilization Board?" she growls. Tom says Lucy is an embarrassment to humanity. She draws these magic marker tattoos on her face. [...] And what's with that old blue sheet strung around her neck? It's like she's some kind of superhero. Plus she's got red hair, so she looks like a piece of red asparagus stuffed into a pillow case.
We get the picture. This girl is weird. She has hung upside down with her feet in a noose with the bats in the rafters of her house. She eeps and cheeps in bat language with Terence. She is fierce, intelligent, intensely lonely, and neglected. Hers is a world where kids get head lice and parents don't notice, where kids steal shampoo and pasta to survive.
And yet, this is not a novel about toughness or streetwise kids. Ordinary is how Terence describes himself: "Being ordinary isn't exactly the same thing as being ugly but it's close". Ordinary meets extraordinary as Terence and Lucy manoeuvre their way through their "bat summer" with tenderness, loyalty, and the healing power of an absurd sense of humour.
Withrow's careful eye sees all: dog nails clicking on the hardwood floors, the pathway of a tear as it falls from cheek to running shoe, the thrill of kite-flying, the stomach-gnawing anxiety of protecting a runaway friend. Terence finds Lucy in a cave under a bridge in a Toronto ravine:
Lucy is bald. She's shaved her head. And I can tell she had a hard time doing it because there are a few nicks by her ear and at the base of her neck. She must have done it to get rid of the lice.
Oh, Lucy. I can see her neck muscles tighten. I swear, I can see her brain thinking. She lets her face fall in her hands.
I can't catch my breath. I remember the color of her hair. How I once thought it was spiky and stringy, and also how it burned like fire. And also, how I touched it.
It's not surprising that Bat Summer won the Groundwood Twentieth Anniversary First Novel for Children Contest and was nominated for the 1998 Governor General's Award. This is a jewel of a book. Let's hope this is the beginning of a long writing career for Sarah Withrow.
Diana Brebner lives in Ottawa. Her most recent book of poetry is Flora & Fauna.