I tried to be a better father to my son than my father was to me. I tried to let him know he was important. I tried to keep him safe. But I wasn’t there for large parts of his life, and I don’t think he ever forgave me. I should have taken a lesser-paying job closer to the leprosy hospital, so that I could see him every day.
My father failed me, and I failed my son. The pressure of that failure pushed me down. I waited until my son was far, far away. Then I killed myself.
As soon as I did it, I wished I hadn’t.
But by then I was dead. It was too late to change my mind.
Jomon should be very happy since his team successfully competed in the geography competition and won a medal. But Jomon still feels left out, and now that his part in the challenge is over, he will no longer be a part of a team. He senses that the others saw him just as a useful teammate rather than a friend. Jomon is so upset by this and by other circumstances in his family life that he takes out his anger on a local liquor store, heaving his hard-won medal through the glass window and smashing it. This act leads to Jomon’s spending a couple of nights in jail and then eventually to a youth detention centre. It also leads him to knowledge that completely turns around his life.
Meanwhile, at the local museum, Gather has decided to leave captivity and rejoin the world. She doesn’t realize that as a Megatherium, a giant ground sloth, she went extinct thousands of years ago. While the museum staff ponders what to do and how to perhaps spin this runaway into positive PR, it is the lowly cleaning lady who understands Gather’s impulse to have her freedom.
Award-winning author Deborah Ellis sets her novels in developing countries, allowing her readers a little bit of armchair travel along with an excellent story. The Greats is set in Guyana, on the northeast coast of South America. While the setting doesn’t play a major role, it provides an interesting background and context for what is a universal tale.
While Jomon is being held in detention, he meets various ancestors. “The greats”, beginning with his great-great-grandfather, all make their appearance and explain their life decisions, particularly their decision to commit suicide once their sons were a little older and able to look after themselves. As chance would have it, Jomon, himself, is seriously considering suicide since he has no family support, no friends, and now – with a criminal record – few chances at education and a better life. His mind was made up until the greats appeared, and he learns a great deal from them, including better ways of handling his emotions. Jomon matures from entirely dismissing their advice to listening to them and learning from them. In turn, the greats also learn from one another and begin to reconcile their differences.
Like Gather, Jomon has felt he is separated from reality and a captive of circumstances. Both the boy and the ancient sloth come back to life and regain their freedom. Ellis deals with the theme of finding interest and purpose in life when things seem impossible as well as the many ups and downs of father-son relationships. The greats give Jomon the benefit of their experience and help him with important life lessons. Ellis manages all of this without becoming pedantic or preachy. Young adult readers will relate to Jomon’s feelings and will enjoy the fable-like quality of Gather’s story as well.
In a brief entry at the end of the novel, Ellis lists four organizations to contact if readers, themselves, are dealing with suicidal thoughts or if they have friends or loved ones in need of help.
The Greats is a short but powerful book with a main character who teaches readers that one’s family and future are worth fighting for and that struggles, no matter how difficult they might seem at the time, are only temporary.
Ann Ketcheson is a retired high school teacher-librarian and classroom teacher of English and French who lives in Ottawa, Ontario.