"I want to make people uncomfortable. I want them to stop pretending that street people aren't there. I want them to do something to help." Spoken by the protagonist Nick Battle, these words sum up the message of Kristin Butcher's The Runaways
, in which the twelve-year-old Nick befriends and helps a homeless man named Luther.
Having never known his father, Nick resents it that his mother has remarried, and his resentment turns to anger when he discovers that his mother and stepfather are now expecting a child. Feeling betrayed and unwanted, he runs away and encounters the town vagrant in a deserted mansion, where Nick takes shelter. Although he returns home the following day, his relationship with Luther continues, a relationship characterized as much by curiosity as by kindness, because Luther is an articulate, talented man: "Luther didn't fit Nick's idea of a vagrant. People only lived on the streets if they had no other choice, didn't they? But someone as smart as Luther must have had a choice. So why had he chosen poverty, hunger, and public humiliation? What could Luther be hiding from that was worse than those things?" Nick's efforts to discover answers to these questions raise his awareness of the plight of homeless people and, ultimately, help him come to terms with his new stepfather.
Butcher succeeds in presenting important social issues in a context that young readers will appreciate. Single motherhood, for example, fares well when Nick compares his upbringing with that of children in two-parent families: "Nick would have matched his mother against anyone else's dad.... She was always there when Nick needed her.... With a mom like this, Nick never missed having a father." While conducting research for a school project, Nick learns that streets aren't venues of drug addicts and deviants as much as they are homes of the poor: "`More than anybody else, that's who's out there. And being poor doesn't mean they're into drugs or crime. It means they can't find work. It means they're sick. It means they have no one to take care of them.... The streets are all they have.'"
Regrettably, Butcher concentrates on issues at the expense of credibility, sometimes ignoring inconsistencies in her main character. For instance, Nick has many friends his age but, in the span of several months, he spends time with virtually none of them. More important, however, is the author's failure to provide reasonable motivation for her protagonist. At one point, the narrator comments, "Why Nick cared [about the street people], he wasn't sure"; unfortunately, neither is the reader. Because Butcher offers no reason to justify Nick's passion to help the homeless, the reader often has no reason to believe in his actions, which include endangering himself while conducting his research on the streets.
Inconsistencies aside, The Runaways demonstrates the importance of having a social conscience and shows young readers that they, too, can make a difference. As Luther points out, "`[When] you run away from one set of problems, you only run toward a whole batch of new ones.'" In fact, Butcher's novel isn't about running from problems; it's about facing them. And finding solutions.
Don Aker is a writer living in Middleton, N.S. His short fiction has received numerous awards and his first young adult novel, Of Things Not Seen (Stoddart), earned him the 1996 Ann Connor Brimer Award and the 1996 Canadian Authors Association Lilla Stirling Book Award.