Fifteen-year-old Nicky MacNeil is an expert at bottling up her feelings, and she's had plenty of them to bottle up since her mother abandoned her eight years before. Hardly anyone is aware of just how turbulent they are-neither her close friends, nor her archaeology professor father, nor her grandparents, who helped raise Nicky in Greenock, Nova Scotia.
The question of just why her mother divorced her father and moved to Japan to teach English is always in Nicky's thoughts. Afraid of opening up old wounds, she doesn't dare ask her father the reason, and while she occasionally corresponds with her mother, that isn't the kind of question easily posed in a letter to someone who is little more than a collection of camera-flash memories.
When her father tells her he's planning to remarry, those bottled-up feelings overflow.
In Angels in the Snow, her first novel, Wenda Young hits no false notes in her emotionally authentic rendering of Nicky's teenage viewpoint and narration. Much of the dramatic tension is produced by the disparity between Nicky's inner expression of her hurt, confusion, and sense of betrayal, and her reticence and guarded behaviour with family and friends. Over the course of the novel, that gap is bridged as Nicky learns to speak her mind.
Young's generous-spirited book, while turning on a "problem", is a pleasant alternative to the hard-edged realism of many recent YA novels which focus so heavily on the hot issue of the day. Young creates characters who first and foremost are human beings grappling with problems-not problems barely fleshed out into bodies.
Like many children of divorce, Nicky still clings to the faint dream that somehow, some way, her parents will get back together and they will be a family again. Her father's impending marriage spurs her to accept an invitation from her mother to visit her in Japan. Nicky's trip is an eye-opener, not just in terms of the Japanese people and culture, but inevitably in terms of her mother.
The characters are handled with understanding and sensitivity, but occasionally Young errs on the side of too much benevolence, and backs away from harsh truths, particularly in her depiction of mother-daughter tensions.
Nicky gradually acquires the strength to ask the question she needs to have answered. Not without sadness, she comes to gracefully accept one of the hardest truths for children-that their parents are not just parents, but people, too, who sometimes stumble while struggling to balance their responsibilities to their children and to themselves.
Sherie Posesorski is a Toronto writer and editor.