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Learning Experiences
by Heather Kirk

ACTUALLY I read eight novels. One broke all the rules: it was not written by a Canadian. The British-born American writer Susan Cooper, author of The Boggart (Maxwell Macmillan, 199 pages, $18.95 cloth), is a former Newbery Award winner (The Grey King, 1976). She has Toronto friends, which explains why her novel is set there. The Boggart is a frivolous and hilarious story of ancient magic in a contemporary, white, and unabashedly well-adjusted, middleclass setting. It is about a Scottish spirit, "born of a magic as old as the rocks and the waves," who is accidentally shipped in an antique desk to the home of Emily, 12, and Jessup, 10. The lonely, furi-loving creature wreaks havoc in the family it adopts. The children learn nothing, but Susan Cooper being silly has more to say than most writers being serious, and she says it better. Now on to the Canadian books, two of which can also be recommended. One of the seven does not focus on the downtrodden. Still, in You Don`t Mess with Mozart (Penumbra, 119 pages, $9.95 paper), by Janet Craig James, the protagonist certainly learns. Fifteen-year-old Megan Richardson is an only child with notions of becoming a concert pianist who will play only Mozart. A July spent away from home at Ralston College broadens Megan`s social and musical horizons, as she learns self-control and self-confidence through formal rehearsals of classical music and finds release and friends through jazz jams. The writing here is pedestrian, the character development merely competent. In Nancy-Lou Patterson`s The Painted Hallway (Porcupine`s Quill, 196 pages, $12.95 paper), another only child, 13 -year-old Jennifer Scott, spends her summer exploring a huge old family house in southwestern Ontario. With the help of a librarian, Jennifer solves a mystery from 100 years before: a tragedy of illegitimate love. Unfortunately, too much attention is paid to details of appearance and not enough to plot and character. The beginning chapters are slowed by long descriptions of the house, and are studded with technical terms such as newel post and dado. The pace eventually quickens, and the fantasy sequences are vivid, but Jennifer remains more of an adult researcher than a child. And the importance of what she learns is not clear. A white kid running from his past association with drugs learns from a Native activist about self-confidence, courage, and the importance of formal education in Marilyn Halvorson`s Stranger on the Run (Stoddart, 191 pages, $9.95 paper). Halvorson is the author of the very successful Cowboys Don`t Cry. This novel, a sequel to her Brothers and Strangers, has an openended conclusion that promises a sequel to the sequel. Steve Garret, 19, is grieving for a girlfriend dead of a drug overdose and trying to keep himself from getting killed by the big-time drug dealer for whom he used to work. A young Native man, Jesse, helps him heal. There is plenty of action here, some romance, and some humour. But perhaps Jesse, a graduate of the Oka crisis who is now studying for an M.A. in environmental studies while fighting development companies raping the wilderness, is too good to be true; Steve certainly is. An idealized Native and the evils of addiction also appear in The Invitation (Sister Vision, 176 pages, $12.95 paper), a first novel by Cyndy Baskin, a Metis. Although its subject matter is very worthwhile, The Invitation is flawed. Three female friends in their early 20s - one Aboriginal, one Metis, and one Anglo-Saxon - look back over their lives. All three have suffered greatly from depression because they are the children of alcoholics, and all three eventually get help. So far so good. Unfortunately, the solutions are too easy, the insights too pat. The device of giving each girl a chapter in turn does not quite work, partly because the voices are too similar, partly because there is too much telling and not enough showing. Despite its literary flaws, however, The Invitation could be used as a supplement to therapy for young-adult children of alcoholics. With the same device of giving main characters alternate chapters, the more experienced Carol Matas, in Sworn Enemies (HarperCollins, 132 pages, $16.95 cloth), creates a taut drama of racial prejudice, individual psychology, a desperate struggle for survival, and the growth of a human spirit. In 19th-century Russia, Jews were officially drafted at the age of 18; unofficially, as young as eight. The enemies of the title are two Jewish teenagers in Odessa, Aaron and Zev. Zev, jealous of Aaron`s success in school, and in love with Aaron`s betrothed, gets Aaron dragged off into the army. Then Zev himself is pressed into a military life so cruel that few survive even when there is no combat. Both boys are severely tested morally as well as physically, and it is not always the intelligent, religious one who does right. This is fine historical fiction, more thoughtprovoking than Matas`s previous novel, Jesper. Recommended. In James Houston`s Drifting Snow: An Arctic Search (McClelland & Stewart, 150 pages, $16.99 cloth), an Inuit girl returns to the north to search for her identity. She knows that as an infant she was taken south so she would not die of tuberculosis, and that somehow her identity papers were lost. But, raised in a southern hospital, she does not know her family, culture, or language. The girl stays near Baffin Island with kind Inuit strangers who have a son and daughter about her own age, and who follow traditional ways of living off the land. As she acquires Inuktitut words and shares in sometimes harrowing adventures, she makes friends and begins to feel at home. Of course Houston`s portrayals of northern life are recognized for their authenticity, but I find Drifting Snow unexciting. There are no intoxicants - good or bad - in this book, and the human faces in Houston`s illustrations look like "Smile!" buttons. Finally, an outstanding little novel: Jill Creighton`s Where the Sky Begins (Annick, 96 pages, $5.95 paper), illustrated by Sue Harrison. When a hated alcoholic uncle bullies three children in their parents` absence, the eldest, a sensitive 12year-old boy, Jenkins, tries to save his siblings by running away with them. Creighton`s language is fresh and evocative, and unforced humour abounds: "Witches don`t have handkerchiefs. They just let their nose run." The characterization is deft and complex emotions are depicted, but the text is never overloaded, and remains simple and concrete. Harrison`s illustrations tense views through a concave lens or convex mirror - convey Jenkins`s state of mind brilliantly. Where the Sky Begins follows all the rules. It could be used as bibliotherapy. Yet it transcends mere formula and illuminates life. It also entertains. Highly recommended.

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