Keep moving Zaine. Just keep moving.
I’m muttering the words over and over. It’s one of the first things I learned on the streets. Keep moving, and don’t get caught off guard – especially after dark.
The last three weeks have been a crash course in survival. I’ve learned a lot of things the hard way. You can’t assume empty cars are abandoned, because their owners might come back in the middle of the night. Offers to sleep on someone’s couch can come with strings attached, like being expected to have sex with the couch’s owner. And shelters aren’t places where you should try to catch any sleep. The only time I stayed at one, someone stole my extra hoodie, two pairs of socks, and my last twelve bucks.
My legs are heavy as I shuffle down the grimy sidewalk. The wind blows a plastic bag against my legs. I’m too tired to kick it away. I veer toward the stone building to try to get out of the wind. A groan nearly makes me jump out of my soggy running shoes.
In the darkness, I almost trip on the edge of a sleeping bag. The guy huddled inside it is barely visible beneath the doorway. “Sorry man,” I say.
I flip up the collar of my jacket. God will this Edmonton winter never end?
The story begins shortly after Zaine has been kicked out of his aunt’s house by her husband. Zaine has been struggling since his mother left four years earlier, with her saying at that time she would return in a month. The challenges of being abandoned by his mother and enduring an hostile relationship with his uncle send Zaine out on the street. Zaine’s being assaulted by another homeless man sends him to hospital and ushers in his chance to improve his situation.
Zaine, enrolled in the “DTO – Despite The Odds” program at school, is again living with his aunt and cousins (his uncle is no longer living with the family) and is making some progress until he gets the news his mother is not returning as she had promised a month earlier. Zaine bolts from his aunt’s home to a shed he remembers from his youth, and there he assaults and trashes the workshop of the owner, who, readers come to learn, is the grandfather of one of Zaine’s DTO classmates. The remainder of the story revolves around the restorative justice program designed to meet the needs of Zaine’s victim and hopefully keep Zaine from serving time for his crimes and retaining the privilege of living in his aunt’s home. Zaine’s mother shows up unexpectedly and arrives just in time for the final restorative justice meeting and leaves immediately afterward, at Zaine’s request, without him.
As Karen Spafford-Fitz explains in the “Acknowledgements”, she was inspired to write a story that focuses on restorative justice after meeting Andrew Allan Balser’s parents who chose the path of restorative justice to deal with Andrew’s accidental death that involved another youth. The action carries the story, and, in spite of there being no surprises, readers are kept on the edge of their seats. The restrictions of this genre lend itself to characters whose main responsibility is to move the plot along, but the characters’ transformations that result from the restorative justice initiative are credible. Zaine’s first person narrative gives it the immediacy fundamental to the hi-lo genre. Some of the settings, such as school and home, will be familiar to most readers, and Spafford-Fitz takes them to more unfamiliar settings, like the streets (the places Zaine finds shelter) and the police station, with ease.
Push Back is an engaging read that will offer opportunities for discussion of the justice system.
Ruth McMahon is a professional librarian working in a high school library in Lethbridge, Alberta.