by Pat Barclay
WITH ONE EXCEPTION, THESE seven new books for youngadults suggest that realism is definitely "in"; the exception is afantastical wild card so densely and archaically written it could well convertits readers to realism on the spot. FoolsErrant (Maxwell Macmillan, 214 pages, $14.95 cloth, $9.95 paper), by Matt Hughes, is the picaresque tale of an idleyoung man who is forced to travel, in company with a domineering dwarf, througha series of strange realms in search of his uncle, who rules over "thoseregions of old Earth still inhabited by human beings." Clever, when it`snot being too clever, the novel thus enables Hughes to satirize whatever aspectof our own society he chooses, a la Jonathan Swift (except that Swift knewbetter than to tie his own shoelaces together, stylistically speaking). Thesocial commentary is relieved, here and there, by moments of ribaldry and by aseries of Sufi-style stories which the hero reads en route to his ever-disappearingdestination. Definitely not for everyone, but conceivably for someone!
Maybe it`s stretching the point to describe Eric Wilson`s The Case of the Golden Boy (HarperCollins, 93 pages, $4.99 paper) as "realism," but the secret of Wilson`s success as a writerof fiction for young adults, it seems to me, lies in his ability to make hisprotagonists` adventures appear so very likely and convincing. At the sametime, those protagonists -Tom Austen and his sister, Liz - are sofull of beans in both thought and action that they loom larger than life overthe rest of Wilson`s characters. This quality makes them safe to be around -if you`re a reader and not a fictional buddy, that is - and has helpedendear Wilson to any teacher or parental unit who ever despaired of findingfiction lively enough to tempt the reluctant young reader.
Assured, direct, and suspenseful, the novel holds one`sinterest from opening sentence ("It was night when Tom Austen and hisfriends approached the mystery house") to concluding thought ("It wasthe best moment of his life - so far"). The plot centres on akidnapping and Tom`s determination to thwart the criminals at any risk tohimself, and there`s even a funny scene in which our hero stakes out a cafe ina disguise that rapidly falls to pieces. Good stuff.
Roy MacGregor makes an impressive debut as a writer ofyoung adult fiction in Mystery at Lake Placid (McClelland & Stewart, 199 pages, $4.99 paper), the first in the projected "Screech OwlsSeries," about the adventures of a peewee hockey team from"Tamarack," Ontario. This time out, the Screech Owls travel to atournament in Lake Placid, New York, where they are to play an assortment of USteams as well as the "chippy and arrogant Toronto Towers." The Towersare small potatoes, however, compared with the wily "PortlandPanthers" from New England; MacGregor`s 12-year-old hero,Travis Lindsay, finds himself in the middle of a running battle with thePanthers` ruthless centre both on and off the ice. Further complicating theaction is the sabotage taking place in the dressing room: bent skate blades,missing hockey sticks, cut laces and braces, etc.
Setting and dialogue are thoroughly convincing, andthe characters are nicely drawn. Making the Screech Owls` team captain and bestplayer a girl, plus casting the team itself as so multicultural it represents"virtually every part" of Canada and includes a French-Canadiangoaltender, a Cree right-winger, and various players and/or theirfamilies "who had come from" no less than eight other countriesaround the world, may be just a teensy bit over the top, though. If the ScreechOwls Series is not a howling commercial success, it won`t be because it`s notpolitically correct.
Gerald Holt also has a likely winner in Tails of Flame (Stoddart, 235 pages, $5.99 paper), which describeslife in war-time Britain from the viewpoint of 10-year-oldTim Athelstan, whose dad is missing in action in Italy and who has had to movetwice - with his pregnant mum and fiveyear-old sister - toescape the bombing. Either Holt, who lived through a similar experiencehimself, has near-total recall or he`s done his homework extremely well.The detail in this novel (listening to the wireless downstairs through a tinmug on the floor, watching the flying bombs known as doodlebugs) isextraordinary.
The story involves a Canadian uncle who flies aLancaster bomber, a school bully whose father is unfit for duty, anunscrupulous war profiteer on the run, and the two sets of loving grandparentswho complete Tim`s family. This is an exciting and poignant piece of work.
Trinidad is the setting for Sometimes Hard (Longman, 202 pages, $7.95 paper), by Cyril Dabydeen. Dabydeen`s protagonist is 12-year-oldLeroy Blue, whose lot in life is to deliver his mother`s washing while avoidingher volatile temper, and to learn to deal with a pestiferous girl who tauntshim. Leroy also yearns to see his estranged father and worries about his ownimpending emigration, when he will go to live with his Auntie Kate in New York.He`s further preoccupied with the mystery of Mrs. Simcoe, a white Americanwoman married to a local man, and the problem of Reverend John, who appears tohave designs on Leroy`s mother. Dabydeen`s dialogue catches the rhythms ofTrinidadian speech, and his young characters seem wonderfully authentic. Thenovel`s dense texture and rather poetic use of repetition will make it heavygoing for younger readers when read in the usual way, but a list of 13questions for discussion reveals that SometimesHard is partly intended for classroomstudy. Read in sections on assignment (preferably accompanied by some steelbandmusic playing on the Walkman), the adventures of Leroy and friends should holdup very well.
Female protagonists get a look-in at last in Fires Burning (Stoddart, 268 pages, $5.99 paper), by Julie Lawson and Saying Good-Bye (Lester, 192 pages, $16.95 cloth), a collection ofshort stories from Linda Holeman. FiresBurning focuses on two troubledteenagers, Chelsea and Diggon, whose shared understanding causes anguish toChelsea`s normally welladjusted cousin, Beth, who is, of course, in love withDiggon. Squaring this fraught triangle is comical Field, Beth`s archetypallittle brother. We follow Chelsea from her broken home in Vancouver to herfather in Hawaii, then on to the idyllic spot in British Columbia where Bethand her reassuringly normal family spend their summers. Joining them there isDiggon, on the run from a terrible incident that he blames himself for notpreventing. Further thickening this already jam-packed plot are Chelsea`scompulsion to play with matches and a sudden storm, which leaves the four youngcharacters stranded on a beach with a leaky rowboat. Lawson`s ability tomodulate the novel`s intensity is impressive, and besides, there`s alwaysmosquito-like Field around for comic relief.
Linda Holeman`s stories in Saying Good-Bye aremostly about people like Chelsea and Diggon: the loners of teenage society.Several of them confront sexual complexities, such as date rape, homosexuality,abuse, and the amorous boyfriend who`s no friend at all. One young girl chafesat having to live out her mother`s dream of becoming a dancer. Another yieldsto temptation, claims she`s the sister of a national celebrity, and enjoysinstant popularity - for a while. Others learn what really counts forthem: communication with a very special grandmother, kindness to someonedifferent, honouring good memories of a dead father. Holeman`s emphasis is onrespecting the right indeed, the obligation - to think and decide foroneself. Her stories may make some readers uncomfortable, because they sofrequently ring with truth. In doing so, they provide an apt example.