||A Review of: Stitches
by Olga Stein
Stitches, this year's Governor General's Literary Award winner in
the category of text for young readers, is a delight. Generally,
it is hard for me to focus on a kids' book without first imagining
that I'm reading it to someone young enough to be interested. No
need for such projection in this case. I ploughed through the book
in one sitting and enjoyed the read.
The writing is definitely good. It may not be great literature, but
it is intelligent, engaging, and brings the characters to life no
less perceptively than a book intended for adult readers. Nor are
the themes the standard children's fare. Travis, the first-person
narrator and the novel's protagonist isn't a typical boy. He likes
to sew, decorate fabric, and make costumes for his collection of
dolls and puppets. We're made to understand that he stands out in
other ways too, for he is the target of a threesome of young bullies.
Being different in a small town is a lonesome business, and Travis
does find himself on his own until he is befriended by Chantelle,
a sympathetic class mate who is different in her own way.
Tiny Chantelle has a number of congenital problems. She has a scar
and a malformed upper lip, her growth is stunted, she has delicate
bones and she limps when she walks. On the other hand, she is bright,
sensitive, shares Travis's interests in puppetry and theatre, and
is a caring, loving and lovable friend.
Travis and Chantelle have other things in common. They are both
from the wrong side of the tracks. Travis lives in a trailor park
with his kind, verbally- (and occasionally physically) abused aunt
and her children. His mother, a country and western singer, visits
between gigs. Life in the trailer home isn't easy, but not intolerable,
and Travis is neither neglected nor unhappy.
Chantelle's family life isn't rosy either. Her father has been ill
for as long as she can remember. Her mother is a strange, slightly
distracted woman, and her much older brothers are motorbike-riding,
beer-guzzling, rowdy fellows with problems of their own. But so
that the reader doesn't get the wrong impression, Huser makes it
amply clear that Chantelle is treated kindly by her family members.
Love and nurturing can be present in all sorts of homes, he seems
to be saying.
Over a period of three years, Travis and Chantelle become close,
doing school projects together, celebrating birthdays, and helping
one another in times of crisis. Various teachers, impressed by the
duo's, and especially Travis's talent, encourage their interests
in theatre, puppetry and costume and stage design. In grade nine,
they are asked to stage a puppet rendition of Shakespeare's A
Midsummer Night's Dream for the end-of-year show. The author does
an excellent job of conveying the kids' burgeoning appreciation for
Shakespeare, their efforts to understand the play and the work they
take on in order to do justice to the splendors of Shakespeare's
world of fairies.
Other kids with artistic interests eventually gravitate towards
Shantelle and Travis. Differences' become less of a consideration
as children mature and begin to place higher value on intelligence
and creative abilities in others. However, Travis continues to be
victimized by the three boys who openly call him "fag",
"pansy", and "fairy". By grade nine, the boys
have become full blown hooligans. Their leader, Shon Docker , is a
definite threat to everyone around him, including his girlfriend,
but aspecially to Travis. Stitches culminates with Travis's terrifying
abduction by the three following the grade nine graduation party,
and some serious injuries. He is saved by Chantelle's motorcycling
Huser portrays characters with skill, from those in the centre of
the story to those on its margins. His treatment of Travis's
non-boyish' interests is sensitive, just detailed enough for young
readers (for instance, Travis feelings for Malcom McTavish are
mentioned but not dwelled on). This is ground-breaking in some ways,
as mainstream kids' literature has not, as far as I'm aware, addressed
same-sex inclinations in adolescent protagonists. It's about time.
I can easily recommend Stitches for its writing and serious themes.
The only criticism I would make is that Glen Huser packs too much
of hard reality into his book. Tackling homophobia, bullying, spousal
abuse, economic hardship, and sickness and death in one book
occasionally comes across as overkill-but only occasionally.