Some plots do not summarize gracefully. Those little twists that make for lively reading can look very strange indeed when squashed into less than a hundred words. This is certainly the case with Awake & Dreaming
. In this book, a neglected nine-year-old, Theo, sustains herself with the fantasy of belonging to a kindly, middle-class family. Her single mother decides that Theo must live with an aunt she cannot remember. On the Vancouver Island ferry, under the gaze of a strange-looking older woman, Theo sees her fantasy family. In her misery, she wishes to be part of the family, and somehow the wish comes true. At first, Theo is perfectly happy, but gradually the plot unravels, and finally she awakes to discover herself back on the ferry with her mother. In Victoria, Theo adjusts to her kindly but prim and beleaguered aunt. Then she stumbles onto the family of her fantasy. Through them, she learns that the ghost of a children's writer named Cecily Stone has been watching her. Theo's long dream was the plot of a novel Cecily had wanted to write before she died. Finally, through Cecily, Theo catches a glimpse of a better life.
If this sounds like the plot of a really bad novel, that shows how little plot counts in the hands of a gifted writer. Because Awake & Dreaming is one of the best books I've read in the last year, without using qualifiers like "young adult". Pearson's portrait of a neglected child is at once hard-nosed and sensitive. Theo's mother Rae is a poor mother in every sense of the phrase. Only sixteen when Theo was born, she struggles to keep off welfare, but seems less mature than her daughter. Theo is left alone while her mother works nights; she needs shoes, has to panhandle, and is usually too hungry to concentrate in school. Rae is immature, even downright unkind, but not evil. We see her as someone expected to assume far more responsibility than she can handle.
Pearson deftly plays with the contrast between what Theo wants from life and what is possible, by introducing the ghost of Cecily Stone. The confluence of her desire to "write" her unfinished book in Theo's imagination, and Theo's need for security creates a world that ultimately falls apart because it is too perfect. As she discovers who Cecily was and meets the ghost, Theo's life gradually resolves itself. Her mother returns to reclaim her, and live closer to the older sister who took Theo in. Cecily is no longer earth-bound by her desire to write her final book. While it is wrenching for Theo to let go, she learns through Cecily that she has the makings of a writer.
Magic is like gold: splash too much around and the result is tawdry. Pearson's delicate hand touches this book with mystery more often than outright enchantment. The result is spellbinding. This is one book that must be read to be believed. l
Janet McNaughton is a writer who lives in St. John's, Newfoundland.