Some authors turn out books of uniformly good quality at regular intervals and explore a different field of inquiry each time round. Peter Dickinson, Robin McKinley, Diana Wynne Jones, and Robert Westfall are some authors I regularly check the shelves of bookstores for, or automatically order when I see a new title listed in the reviewing media. William Bell is arguably one of the most wide-ranging and reliable of Canadian authors.
The plot here is a good one. Zack is the product of a black mother from the southern States and a Jewish father from Canada. They have moved from inner-city Toronto to a small Ontario town, and Zack goes AWOL to find his mother's estranged family. The book is full of pleasures. For Zack, life in Toronto amounts to going to a school "with faces of every colour and humming with languages from around the world". In the United States, the car Zack drives is approached at night by two men. Zack is terrified, and then realizes they are the police: "I felt a wave of relief. Cops. I was safe." How Canadian! But of course they are American police.... Zack describes his parents' reaction to his marks: "Not exactly congratulatory, they seemed pleased in the reserved sort of way I was used to. You've done okay, Zack, but you could have done better-the kind of tone that robbed pleasure and replaced it with guilt."
Should a white man like Bell have created a protagonist who is a member of a visible minority? Zack's naivety seems not quite right for a young black male, even one from a sheltered background. One sad part of life for some young black males is to discover that people are afraid of you, and to learn how to defuse the fear and resulting antagonism. There is nothing of that here. As well, it seemed odd that Zack's parents were not more worried about his low marks, skipping school, and running away from home. But maybe the kid's fine qualities are evident enough to his folks that they could stifle their anxiety and let him work things out for himself.
Whites may not understand the experience of other races, but even less, it seems sometimes, can men understand women. Bell has created a pleasantly gutsy young lady as romantic interest for his hero, but she is the least successful part of the book. She is every growing boy's wet-dream in the way she initiates the kissing stage of their relationship, and types up a history project for him. A useful lass, in more ways than one. It would have been pleasant to have had a sense that Bell had thoroughly explored her interior reality, even though she is only a minor character. Missing is a sense of the obdurate and intransigent existence that even subordinate players ought to have.
What will Bell do next? Thrillers (No Signature), problem novels (The Cripple's Club), political adventure (Forbidden City), and even a splendid picture-book (The Golden Disk) are among his entirely successful products. His range is impressive. So is the high quality of his writing. Nice to have people you can count on.