WE ARE, with any luck at all, entering the post problem novel era of young adult literature. Virtually everyone agrees that the problem novel, like Eastern European Communism, has outlived its usefulness. But, like the Eastern Europeans, young- adult novelists and editors are finding the old ways hard to replace. If this crop of books is any indication, strong regional voices and historical settings are helping to fill the place once occupied by emotional angst and trauma. What a relief.
Marilyn Halvorson's But Cows Can't Fly (Stoddart, 147 pages, $5.99 paper) is solidly set in the ranch lands of Alberta, where 11 -year-old Jodie is sent to live with her grandparents while her parents spend a year in Africa. In these connected short stories, Jodie rides her own horse and has adventures, mainly with cows but sometimes with owls and bears. The stories are well paced and humorous, with never a trace of angst. Jodie isn't always credible for her age; she anthropomorphizes animals and even trees in a way that seems more plausible for a six-year-old. But the stories do hold the reader's interest and will appeal especially to kids who love animals.
Another angst-free story with a strong regional setting is Voices on the Bay (Beach Holme, 120 pages, $8.95 paper) by Ginny Russell. When Dave comes to visit his grandparents on Mayne Island off the coast of British Columbia, he is not happy about moving with his family to Chicago in the fall, but that doesn't stop him from enjoying his vacation. Dave's energetic curiosity propels him into low-key adventure, as he learns from an old Native man about the way of life Native people once shared on the island. With clues from his elderly friend and using his own imagination, Dave reconstructs a game the children played. The conversations are stiff in places, and Russell is sometimes repetitious. Her aim of making Native culture more familiar to young readers is worthwhile, but the narrative often bogs down in didactic details.
But the strangest thing about Voices on the Bay is that the cover seems to belong to another book. It shows two astounded boys watching a carved cedar canoe filled with ghostly Native paddlers. Great scene, but it doesn't occur in the novel. Why would a publisher mislead young readers so blatantly?
Yvette Edmonds's Yuit (Napoleon, 128 pages, $6.95 paper) deals more directly with Native culture. Liak, a strong-willed Inuit girl, talks her grandfather into letting her adopt an albino seat pup, in spite of strong cultural prohibitions. When she is banished for this, her grandfather follows her and is attacked by a polar bear. Liak is a very real character and Edmonds convincingly shows the tenderness between her and her grandfather. But there are errors. By September, when the story is set, seals are full-grown, independent animals, not pups, and seagulls do not lay eggs so late in the year. At a key moment in the story, the seat distracts the polar bear by biting it. Polarbear fur is far too thick for a seal to cause more than annoyance, and the bear would make very short work of any seat that tried. It also seems unlikely that a young girl would accept banishment and being thrust into European culture with as few qualms as Liak feels. Yuit is, however, fast paced, well written, and makes enjoyable reading.
The post-war boom year of 1954 is the setting for The Night Hazel Came to Town (Maxwell Macmillan, 148 pages, $14.95 cloth, $9.95 paper). I don't like the title, but that's the only critical thing I can say about this book by John Ibbitson. Wise-cracking 17-year-old Lee, escapes his withdrawn father in Northern Ontario and lucks into a job as copy boy at the Toronto Tely. He is drawn into the struggle to
scoop the the Star, sees Marilyn Bell rise from Lake Ontario, helps a reporter cover an execution, and watches houses float down the Humber River during Hurricane Hazel (hence the title.) He also experiences his first heartbreak in a hopeless relationship with an oIder, left-wing actress. Ibbitson has a wonderful car. His first-person narrative is without a trace of sentiment, but Lee comes across as a certain of anyone's one's love. The historical setting and occupational details of reporters' lives are perfect. Buy this teenager.
Shirlee Smith Matheson's Flying Ghosts (Stoddart, 162 pages, $5.99 paper), also a historical novel about a teenage boy, is set in Alaska in 1942. Fifteen-year-old Jay lives on a trapline with his mother, little sister,
and his father, who has a Criminal past and seems I to need the isolation of the Far North. When Jay's uncle Unexpectedly arives in a Norseman airplane and his family goes to work on the Alaska highway, everything changes.
Matheson does a good job of creating the feel of the Far North and the war years,but this book is packed
with confusing characters and events. Matheson also often gives successive lines of dialogue without attribution, more than once I found myself reading passages to determine who was speaking. I can't the average teenager will find this book to follow than I did. That's too bad because Jay's character is well
drawn and his coming of age should be moving. If Matheson had focused more Clearly on the conflict between Jay and his idealistic but high-strung father, FIying Ghosts would he a stronger book.
Monica Hughes's The Golden Aquarians (HarperCollins, 192 pages, $16.95 cloth) also deals with a father/son conflict, although the setting is a distant planet at the end of the next century. Thirteen-year-old Wait Elliot meets his harsh father for the first time in a "terraforming" camp on a marshy planet. Walt comes to realize there is intelligent amphibian life on the planet that has been overlooked by earlier surveys. His efforts to convince his father that the planet is about to experience a Cataclysmic flood bring the story to a climax.
Hughes is a wonderful writer. Her plot is fast paced and Clear, and her characters are all well developed except that of Walt's father. Although Colonel Elliot is a hard man, readers are given no clues that he is about to suffer a complete mental collapse until it happens. And his subsequent conversion into a kinder, gentler person, at the expense of his Memory, seems a forced happy ending. Even Walt, the main character, appeared to be as uneasy with the change as I was. These criticisms aside, however, The Golden Aquarians is enjoyable reading.
Is there life for young-adult literature after the problem novel! Yes, but it won't he easy. Solid historical research and in-depth knowledge of a place or a Culture are hard work, and the risk of making embarrassing mistakes looms large. But, if the result is a move away from the angst-ridden hooks of the '70s and '80s, toward realism without pain, we have something to look forward to.