Box Girl

by Sarah Withrow
181 pages,
ISBN: 0888994362

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Children's Books
by Lena Coakley

Sarah Withrow's first novel, Bat Summer, was the winner of Groundwood Books' 20th Anniversary First Novel for Children Contest and garnered her a nomination for the 1998 Governor General's Award. With her second novel, Box Girl, Withrow establishes herself as one of Canada's finest writers of realistic fiction for middle readers.

On the first day of grade eight, Gwen Bainbridge meets Clara, a girl who seems blissfully oblivious to her own lack of cool. As persistent as Clara is, Gwen doesn't want any new friends; she's decided to be a loner this year, as much of a loner as J.W. Reane, "the guy who spits on his arm and then draws pictures in the spit." Unbeknownst to anyone, including her own father, Gwen has been receiving post cards from the mother who abandoned the family five years previously. It's only a matter of time, she thinks, before her mother comes to whisk her away to France, so why should she get attached to anyone now? If this doesn't seem like reason enough for a girl at the status-conscious age of thirteen to eschew friends and popularity, you're right. Gwen has a deeper reason for remaining aloof. She is profoundly ashamed of her father's homosexuality, believing that she could never be truly accepted by anyone who knew about it.

It is the integrity of this main character that makes Withrow's narrative so outstanding. Gwen is not always a likeable girl. She's at an age where most children are mortified by their parents, but Gwen's father and his boyfriend Leon are such a palpable embarrassment to her that she is often rude and even cruel to them. She can be more than a little self-centred as well, too wrapped up in her own problems to sympathize with Clara's struggles. "(S)he has everything." Gwen tells her father, and when asked to explain replies: "She has a mother." Withrow trusts the reader's interest enough to show us Gwen Bainbridge, warts and all, and, in the end, we like the character better for her flaws.

Gwen's feelings about her abandonment are also well observed. She is alternately skeptical and certain of her mother's return. With heart-breaking obsessiveness, Gwen invents a spell to hasten the arrival of her mother's postcards. The complicated ritual must be done perfectly and often takes hours. Her compulsive behavior is mirrored when we discover that Clara, who seemed immune to social pressures, was once bulimic. Gwen can only leave behind the unrealistic dream of her mother's return when she understands that she already has two parents who love her: Leon and her father.

Superb writing and a strong, believable main character will make Box Girl a favorite among those who enjoy realistic fiction.

Lena Coakley is a children's writer and book reviewer who lives in Toronto


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