CM . . .
. Volume XVII Number 19. . . .January 21, 2011
Toronto, ON: Dancing Cat Books/Cormorant Books, 2010.
282 pp., pbk., $14.95.
Abused children-Juvenile fiction.
Grades 6-9 / Ages 11-14.
Review by Ann Ketcheson.
When I wake up in the middle of the night, the pillow is on the floor and the sheet's twisted around my neck as if I've been trying to strangle myself in my sleep.
Another revelation is straddling my chest, heavier than Snyder. If bullying is about the abuse of power by hurting and humiliating someone smaller than you, then Floyd's a prime suspect. Nothing he likes better than to make the tears pour down my face.
Floyd's a bully and I'm a bully. Like father, like son. Blood is thicker than water. The reason clichés hang around is because they're true.
I slam the door on my thoughts, grab my pillow, and pound it back into shape. No way am I a younger version of Floyd. I'm out of my mind to even contemplate anything so far-out. So gross.
Another Dr. Seuss book that Cassie likes is Oh, the Thinks You Can Think! Right now, I wish I could think my way out the side door and down the road to the bus stop in Hilchey Bay, where a bus would be waiting to drive me to Halifax. Why stop there? Think myself to Vancouver. Mongolia. Outer space. Anywhere, as long as I leave the whole damn lot of them behind.
Brick MacAvoy isn't quite 15 yet, but he's saving his extra cash and counting the days until he turns 16 and can leave home. No one will miss him. His mother is a self-proclaimed psychic healer who is never home, and his dad sells cars, or tries to, and thinks nothing of taking out his frustrations on Brick when things aren't going well at work. And the kids at school? Well, Brick isn't much of an athlete so his hockey team won't miss him, and he bullies the younger kids so they'll be happy to see him go. Only his four-year-old sister, Cassie, will care if he leaves, but she's really not his responsibility - after all, she has parents.
Jill MacLean's portrait of Brick gives readers insight into the heart and mind of a bully, and she presents him in such a way that, despite his many dislikeable characteristics, readers will find themselves on Brick's side, cheering him on. We learn that Brick's father, Floyd, was a victim of abuse by his own father and thus seems to know no other way to discipline his children. He is arrogant and self-centered, forcing Brick to be little more than a household servant and severely beating him if he protests. When Brick eventually sees subtle changes in Cassie's behaviour and realizes his father has also hit her, life changes. He can't pursue his own plans and leave a small girl to stick up for herself.
Fortunately, MacLean also shows readers the potential in what seems like an impossible situation. When Brick realizes he is becoming just like his dad and is taking out his anxiety and anger on those smaller and weaker than himself, he vows to stop. Help comes from a variety of sources: books from the library, the Langille family who offer him a job and whose house eventually becomes almost a second home for Brick and Cassie, and Docker Lonergan who persuades Brick to try out karate at his dojo and encourages him to build both stamina and self-esteem with weights and running.
MacLean has written a novel of suspense and tension since readers, like the protagonist himself, never know what will spark Floyd's anger and cause more abuse. The tension mounts because Brick fears the consequences of the abuse if neighbours find out what is happening, and so he comes up with a variety of lame excuses to explain the cuts and bruises he suffers. If he reports his dad, will the police get involved? Will social services separate him from Cassie and send them to different foster homes? It seems easier to just keep quiet and endure the consequences.
Home Truths is a heart-warming coming-of-age novel which attempts to tackle head-on the difficult issues of bullying and abuse. MacLean certainly doesn't condone either, but she helps readers understand the cyclical nature of the problem, how abuse begets someone who knows no other way to communicate and resolve problems. Before he can truly break from his father, Brick must understand his own personality and make amends for the poor choices he has made. He thus comes up with acronyms, such as AQ for Anxiety Quotient and RQ for Rage Quotient, as he learns about himself, why he reacts as he does and how to begin to change his behaviour. Only this will break the vicious circle and put an end to the abuse once and for all.
Brick is an entirely different young man at the end of the novel, yet MacLean's writing is so forceful that readers find this change to be understandable, logical and realistic. Cassie, too, is clearly depicted. Like most small children, she is both aggravating and lovable. After all, who can resist a little girl who carries around a stuffed skunk everywhere she goes and who suffers frequently from "nightscares?" Thanks to MacLean's vivid and empathetic descriptions, both Brick and Cassie seem to become people readers know and care about a great deal.
Nova Scotian Jill MacLean has received both the Ann Connor Brimer Award and the Ontario Library Association's Silver Birch Award. Undoubtedly, Home Truths will win more well-deserved accolades for her!
Ann Ketcheson, a retired high school teacher-librarian and teacher of English and French, lives in Ottawa, ON.
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