Unhappy families are the theme of these two imaginative young adult novels from B.C. writers Julie Burtinshaw and James Heneghanłthe kind of unhappy families that force young people to fend for themselves emotionally and physically; that disenfranchise rather than empower these young people and force them to take on adult responsibilities because the grownups in their lives fail to meet their obligations.
Fourteen-year-old David Garrett has had to cope with his mother's descent into an overwhelming clinical depression, becoming the primary caregiver for his younger sister, Laura, while also trying to understand why his mother has changed and is unable to get out of bed, make meals, and is prone to crying bouts. He's got no one to turn tołnot even his father. Unable to cope with his wife's depression, his father had moved out and also moved on to a new relationship with another woman. David is angry; he's just a kid and doesn't think that he should have to look after his mother or Laura by himself. His father seems to think his role is to provide weekend relief, although when Elizabeth Garrett becomes totally incapacitated by her depression, he springs into action, arranging to send the kids to stay with their Aunt Jennifer on Fern Island in remote Desolation Sound, British Columbia.
David doesn't expect to like Fern Island or his Aunt Jennifer but he soon changes his tune when he discovers that Aunt Jennifer just wants him to enjoy himselfłto be a fourteen-year-old boy in an exciting new place for the summer. She takes on the responsibilities of looking after both children, and lets David set out on his ownłto explore the island, fish, gather clams, swim and watch Orca whales. Just as tensions begin to ease up, and David and Laura learn to let out the anger they've bottled up inside themselves while they were trying to cope with their mother's illness, their father comes for a visit, bringing his new girlfriend Kathleen. David's anger erupts all over again and his father decides that he's had enough and is going to take the kids back to Toronto in order to make them realize that he's only got their best interests at heart. David and Laura respond by running away.
Burtinshaw's second novel is a tough readłtough because it's hard to watch kids get tangled up in the messes that adults so often make of their lives. Adrift is a pointed tale of what happens when adults forgo their responsibilities. And while she's quick to show that not all adults are irresponsiblełAunt Jennifer is warm and willing to look after the children in her carełeven she finds her hands tied and is ultimately helpless to act in the children's best interests. Burtinshaw is to be particularly commended for how she conveys David's anger. The boy is so profound disturbed that he can't disburden himself to anyonełneither to friends nor caring adults. Here is a powerful portrait of a teen trying to cope as best he can. Burtinshaw manages to end the novel on a positive note without wrapping things up too neatly. Adrift is both a good read and a thoughtfully conceived fiction for teens.
James Heneghan's Flood is also the story of an unhappy family. Andy Flynn finds himself at the mercy of adults after the death of his mother and stepfather. His rigidly cold aunt Mona has come to take him across Canada to live with her and his uncle Hugh, relatives he has never met before from Halifax, Nova Scotia. Most surprising of all, Andy learns, is that his father, who was supposed to have died when Andy was just a baby, is alive and well and also living in Halifax. Andy makes up his mind during the flight that he is not going to be stuck with Aunt Mona and, having wheedled his father's whereabouts out of his opinionated aunt, he decides to run away and does.
But Vinny Flynn isn't the white knight Andy so desperately needs to cope with his mother's death and his sense of abandonment. He's a boozer who can't hold down a proper job, lives in a rundown flea-bag hotel infested with cockroaches as well as the odd rat, sells stale cigarettes and whisky on the streets, is in debt to a pair of mafia thugs and has no notion of how to look after an 11-year-old boy. Andy soon realizes that he's got to take responsibility for himself. He tries his best: He tries to turn Vinny into a good father. He tries to get Vinny to provide the kind of life he was accustomed to in Vancouver. But Vinny isn't able to, ultimately, and for every promise he makes, he breaks another.
When a run-in with the mob leaves him with a broken leg, he calls in Aunt Mona. Andy is determined not to get along with his stiffly starched aunt, but, after recovering from a nasty flu, he begins slowly to give way. He discovers that what makes a good home and a loving family are adults who care and are willing to make sure that children can be free to act their age.
What is wonderful about Flood is that Heneghan shows us the life that Andy and Vinny live almost entirely from Andy's perspectivełit's only afterwards, with Aunt Mona's arrival that we see the extent to which Andy was neglected under Vinny's care. It's subtle and more powerful for not being an in-your-face portrayal.
Finally, there's a side to Flood that is whimsical and charming. Heneghan has a group of Sheehogue, the fairy folk of Celtic mythology, travel with Andy from one coast to the other, acting as guardian spirits. Vinny, a fine storyteller himself, is for all his faults a great believer in the fairy folk and even leaves out nightly offerings to appease them. It's a wonderful touch in this powerful and provocative novel about parental responsibility.
Jeffrey Canton is editor of the children's books section in Books in Canada.