by Karen Krossing
Lesley Krueger has chosen a diary form in writing The Corner Garden. Compelling secrets are revealed in the notebooks of teenager Jessie Barfoot, adult Martha van Tellingen, and the teenage Martha, or Maaike, as she was known. These characters use their diaries the way they were meant to be usedłas a way to understand their worlds and to express painful secrets. Yet, when reading this book, the question that came into my mind was: Is this a book for teens or adults?
The novel starts as Jessie Barfoot moves with her mother to Toronto to live with her mother's new husband. Feeling alone and alienated, Jess is waiting for some earth-shaking event to rock her life, which she predicts will occur by the time she turns sixteen. This "Crucial", as she calls it, turns out to be Martha van Tellingen, the solitary old woman who lives next door. Martha inspires Jess to read Goethe and Nietzsche, and to see life clearly. Jess becomes increasingly alienated from her mother, until she runs away with streetwise Matthew Cavanaugh. Meanwhile, the blonde, athletic Jess has reminded Martha of her secret pastłwhen she was a member of a Hitler youth group in occupied Holland. This sets Martha on a journey into her past and intensifies the nightmarish memories that have haunted her.
Jess's diary entries are instantly engaging. Although her observations may be adult at times, this is because Jess is an insightful observer of her world, rather than a character whose perspective is too adult. "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant," Jess writes, and she does. She is a witty, astute teen whose eyes burn deep through to the truth of the world she examines. For example, Jess describes the cultural geography of Ontariołthe large city of Toronto, small-city life in Kingston, and small-town life in Campbellton. Whether readers know these places, Jess's clever observances bring new insights.
As for Martha, her diary as Maaike is accessible to teen readers since the events of her early life are seen through her adolescent eyes. Her adult diary entries and letters to her dead Father may be more formal and subtle, yet other books have also used an adult voice in a novel for teens, such as Martha Brooks recent Governor General's Award winner True Confessions of a Heartless Girl and Brian Doyle's Uncle Ronald.
Whether for teens or adults, it is voice that works in this novel. Jess is immediately appealing and captivating, and the strong personality of Martha is not easily forgotten. Together, their clear, distinct voices demonstrate how the choices teens make can trigger lifelong consequences.
Jess and Maaike deal with some tough issues, and this book may not be suited for every teen. Still, I predict that teens and adults will discover this appealing book. The Corner Garden firmly belongs in both camps, another example of the blurred line between teen and adult literature.
Karen Krossing is a children's book writer who lives in Toronto.