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Children`s Books
by Welwyn Katz

In this earnestly autobiographical story by Roch Carrier, a former Stephen Leacock Medallist for humour, the author of The Hockey Sweater is still afflicted with his mother's taste in clothing. It is in a dreadful suit of purple and pink plaid that we see young Roch, carefully not crying, arriving at the seminary where he "was going to find all the books you must read if you want to travel far along the road of life." A nameless old priest in black lines up the silent group of tearful new boys, two by two in order of height, and marches them straight to the gym. The priest is determined that Roch will join the seminary's basketball team, though he has never played the game and shows no skill at it when the priest makes him try. The same priest sends the boys out two by two into the icy rain and prevents them coming back in, calling them "little men" as he blocks the door and gives them a sermon on the "difficult stretches along the road of life."

A sleepless Roch leaves the dormitory in his terrible flowered pajamas, and stumbles into the gym, where he turns on the light. There lies the basketball, which the illustrator Sheldon Cohen renders as the world's biggest pumpkin sitting beside a giant rat. Out into the dark and the rain he goes, imagining countless eyes staring at him out of the forest, wolf-shaped trees and birch-tree ghosts. Eventually he is found by poachers and forced into a stinking tent full of the grisly remains of animals. He flees back to the seminary, where for no obvious reason the priest meets him kindly, and where Roch, also for no obvious reason, announces that he wants to play basketball. Does he really want to? Or is the rigid world inside the seminary easier to submit to than the nightmares outside? The question haunts us.

This is a book about fear, and cold, and loneliness, about saying goodbye, about death. Roch Carrier looks back on his past with the eyes of one who has seen too much, and loses the basketball player of the title in visions of weeping boys, freezing rain, gunshots in the dark, blood and death, gravestone beds to sleep in. All these memories matter much more to Carrier than the solitary page of text that takes him from failure at basketball to a team championship. He describes in words the photograph of the team, where he says he is "the one in the Montreal Canadiens sweater," holding a book. He says he doesn't look like a champion. The photograph isn't illustrated in the body of the book, but on the end-papers, as if it doesn't matter.

It doesn't matter, and this is both the strength and the weakness of the story. Why the publishers wanted a title like The Basketball Player for a story that is linked so tenuously to the game is obvious. Clearly it would make for more purchasers, because a sports title would remind them of the previous success of Carrier's funny and true-to-life The Hockey Sweater. But why Carrier allowed its use in a story that he clearly meant to be much deeper, a fearsome and solitary journey on the road of life, is less clear.

Perhaps he lost track of what he wanted this story to be about. The story closes with "I had started to read a great many books because I wanted to go far along the road of life." The phrase "the road of life" is repeated no fewer than five times through the story. The "books you must read" appears at least three times. And after the story, there is a dedication: to "all the authors and illustrators whose stories help us go far along the road of life." The road of life. The books you must read. Is it this, and only this, that kept Carrier going, writing this book that is so peripherally about a basketball player?

If so, he overdoes it. It is a priest's job to preach. An author's job is to let us into the world of the story: to show, not tell.

I was given only the English translation to review and so I can't be sure who is responsible for awkward phrases such as "I would look as out of place as a dog's flea in the fur of a cat," and "it dropped into the net, silently, like a foot into a sock." The jarring sentence "I couldn't stay in this charnel house reeking of blood" is not the way adolescent boys think. We have too much here of the old Roch Carrier, and not enough of the young.

Sheldon Cohen's illustrations are the best thing about this book. It is as if he is trying to overcome the darkness in the text. Gorgeous oranges and golds and astonishing blue nights jump out of the pages at us, and the use of both light and perspective turns ordinary scenes magical. The end pages are, perhaps, the very best thing about this book. They illustrate two bookshelves, with a picture of Maurice Richard holding the Stanley Cup cheek by jowl with the stories of Hans Christian Andersen and a set of geography books, and beside that, the picture of the championship basketball team, with Roch standing a little apart in his hockey sweater and carrying his book.

And underneath that, almost covered by a comic book, are three books titled, Oł sommes nous?, Oł allons-nous?, and D'oł venons-nous?: the three eternal questions all creative people seek to answer with their art. It's a pity Roch Carrier couldn't have answered them as subtly as Sheldon Cohen does in the end-papers. 

Welwyn Wilton Katz is a writer and editor living in London, Ontario. Her latest novel for children, Out of the Dark, won the Ruth Schwartz Award.


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