The joy, playfulness, and imagination that immediately startle and enrich the reader in Make or Break Spring
gains extra zest because its plot could have been a parody of the Young Adult problem novel.
The YA problem novel (mother battered, brother dying of AIDS, racism in the high school, local stream polluted, etc.) can sometimes topple over into farce. You get the flavour-of-the- month phenomenon. Gay parents were in vogue about ten years ago, and there was a crop of mentally challenged siblings (all of whom died in the course of their novels) about two years later. Canadian multiculturalism's stock rose in the early 1980s; one author of my acquaintance had a manuscript rejected, and I quote, "because we feel there is going to be a demand for ethnic protagonists." Of course you need some kind of conflict and dramatic tension, and a problem novel supplies it ready-made. The counter-indications arise when a book's main thrust ("Quick! There's a youngster! Let's teach it something!") concentrates on bibliotherapy rather than exhibiting a genuine passion for the creation of an alternative universe.
McNaughton's book could have been lamentable. Set mainly during the nastiest part of a Newfoundland spring, the story involves a teenager whose father is missing in World War II, who loathes the man her mother seems to be falling in love with, whose best friend is physically handicapped, and whose little brother turns from a charming no-faults toddler into a wonderfully vile temper-tantrum-throwing brat who suffers a near- fatal accident.
But McNaughton's book is a remarkable example of how to handle the genre. You are taken into the world of a charming and intelligent girl whose ability to nurse anger and hatred is transformed into healthy, vibrant new life as she discovers where her true love is to be found, what her life's vocation is, why her mother's friend is likeable and even admirable, and how her own ability to forgive has the power to heal. The parallel between her development and the awakening of the Newfoundland spring is nicely handled. The symbolism is not belaboured; it richly and with nuance shows that the rain, cold, fog, and bone- chilling damp of late winter and early spring in Newfoundland still have a rightness and splendour of their own, and so do the girl's pain, moodiness, and the difficulties she struggles with.
One difference between a well and a poorly written book is the quality of the life that goes on around the main action. McNaughton's creativity and skill make the whole fabric of the book delightful. The family rents a house filled with wonderful detritus from the lives of the previous owners, described with relish. The toddler is unforgettable: his favourite toy is a real stuffed bird: a piping plover, Melodus Charadrius; his favourite bedtime reading is excerpts from a remarkably stodgy-sounding two- volume reference work called Native Birds & Mammals of North America, and his nap-times are the main factor in scheduling family activity. Minor characters are as compassionately crafted as those at centre stage. A stock figure in YA fiction, for example, is the Local Rich Man's Son, upon whom the protagonist girl usually has a crush before she realizes that The Boy Who Has Been Her Best Friend is actually Her Own True Love. The LRMS is usually an asshole and McNaughton yields to the temptation to make him one here-but only to a degree. She takes the reader inside the poor lad's mind, to feel his own particular set of fears and needs, and the reasons for his egocentricity and prejudices. Her delight in regional speech patterns shimmers through the novel too, not with heavy-handed phonetic spellings, but enough in evidence to give a sense of local place and character.
I hope McNaughton wins prizes with this one. My one fear is that it may not be flashy enough for people to realize how good it really is. Maybe she should have included some incest, a Downs Syndrome kid, and an extant Beothuk.