Baggage: A Novel
Baggage: A Novel
I thumb through texts
Courtney’s student council info
Tricia’s update on the coffeehouse talent show
Kevin’s offer to pick me up
I check likes & comments
on my Instagram
check Twitter & Snapchat.
I answer some
send sleepy emoticons
see my follower count is up since yesterday
look up from my phone.
Ms Nelson has the black kid by the hand
is marching him
towards the information desk.
Even after 13 hours in the air
ten days counting student heads
she still has that
I need to know
what’s going on
when she waves me over. [p. 15]
Baggage is a free verse novel that is structurally divided into four “parts”, with each section containing “chapters” headed by the name of one of the book’s six main characters/narrators. Plotwise, Baggage deals with the efforts over several months of three teens and two adults to overturn the decision of the Department of Immigration to deport someone the government bureaucracy has determined is ineligible for entry into Canada.
Given the book’s title, it is appropriate that the action begins in the baggage area of an airport, which, in this case, is the one found in the international arrivals area of Vancouver’s terminal. It’s October, and Ms Nelson, a teacher, has just landed in Vancouver after acting as a chaperone to a group of high school students who had been on an educational tour of Japan. As Ms Nelson waits for a parent to pick up the last student, Brittany, she notices a boy, “Thin, brown, / alone / he looks like / baggage.” (p. 3) That boy is Thabo (“His name is Thabo, / that’s ‘Taa – bo.’” p. 62), and he is the person who becomes the focus of the deportation order.
Although the plot, which includes an action-packed ending involving human traffickers, is highly engaging, what will captivate readers is Phillips’ cast of characters with Brittany at the center. As Kevin, Brittany’s boyfriend of the moment, observes:
Brittany loves projects
loves to talk to crowds.
She can persuade anyone
to join her.
Her favourite part
is getting people passionate
they’ve never heard of. (p. 22)
And so Thabo becomes Brittany’s newest “project”, and when Thabo requires a temporary placement while his case is being adjudicated by Immigration, Brittany convinces her mother to let him live with them. Brittany recruits others to her campaign, including Kevin who declares, “We’re a team. / She does passionate crusader. / I do researcher sidekick.” (p. 23) Beyond taking Thabo to Immigration at the airport, Ms Nelson originally had no intention to become further involved, but “In Brittany’s eyes / I see a reflection / of my old passions. / She’s longing to make / a better world. / Hard to resist.” (p. 35) And so Ms Nelson becomes Thabo’s Designated Representative. Needing money for a lawyer for Thabo’s defence, Brittany gains access through Kevin to The Reverend of a local church where she makes a plea to the congregation for financial support. Later, as the date for Thabo’s deportation rapidly approaches, The Reverend agrees to offer Thabo sanctuary in the church. The final person co-opted to Brittany’s project is her younger sister, Leah. How different the siblings are finds its most obvious expression in the ways in which the two girls “see” Thabo. For Brittany, he is simply a project to be completed, and she looks forward to “...bringing him / to school next week / to get him started on his missed education / to show him to everyone.” [emphasis mine] Leah, on the other hand, recognizes Thabo, the person, and so, when she learns that Thabo’s natal language is Sotho, she goes online and memorizes some Sotho phrases in order to make him feel more at ease.
Although Thabo’s interactions with the book’s other characters are limited because of language barriers, readers have direct access to his thoughts which provide increasing glimpses into what his life was like before Canada. When Thabo first sees his new “home” at Brittany’s, his thoughts reveal the contrast he is experiencing: “[T]hen a house / little white fence / a garden / full with flowers / that could grow / a month of vegetables / a little dog / with a curly tail / too friendly for guarding”. (pp. 48-49)
Figuratively, to have “baggage” is likely something that we usually associate with adults, but Phillips shows that some adolescents are already hauling around carry-on bags that have the potential to become, in later years, the overstuffed luggage that has to be checked in at the gate and paid for before the journey can successfully proceed. For instance, Kevin is burdened by the expectations of his immigrant Chinese parents. “They’ve set their own goals, / told me they’re mine.” (p. 81) Leah lives in the shadow of her older sister. “Sometimes I wish / we had another kid / in the family. / It would be nice to have / a sibling who looked up to me.” (p. 37) Even Brittany, who, at least on the surface appears to be the golden girl, has brief moments of self-awareness, including when she compares herself to her younger sister: “I’m just another / pretty face. / My sister / always was a smart / ass.” (p. 83) Thabo has brought his baggage with him to Canada, and he only reveals the details bit by bit: “I am afraid to trust them / with the whole truth / that I have done / very bad things”. (p. 108)
The two principal adults in Baggage are much more developed than is usually the case of adults in YA novels. To the adolescents around them, Ms Nelson and The Reverend are simply two people who occupy roles, Ms Nelson, the history teacher, and The Reverend, just an occupation. But as the two adults interact with each other, readers come to learn that The Reverend is actually “Bob Donaldson” and that Ms Nelson is “Miranda” and that the pair’s personal baggage includes their marital status, with Bob a bachelor because of unrequited love and Miranda a divorcée due to love betrayed.
Some readers not only prejudge a book by its cover but also by its thickness. At over 300 pages, Baggage may appear intimidating, but, if potential readers will look inside, they will find lots of white space as each speaker only uses one-third of the width of a page. The words of four of the speakers, Ms Nelson, The Reverend, Brittany and Thabo, are aligned with the left margin. Additionally, Thabo’s text appears in italics likely to reflect that he does not yet think or speak in English. Right-justified are the words of Leah while Kevin’s text is appropriately centered as he eventually finds himself emotionally caught between the two sisters. The amount of white space is also increased by the fact that only occasionally does a “chapter” extend beyond a single page. Consequently, what appears to possibly be a daunting read timewise is actually a fairly quick read.
Wendy Phillips’ Fishtailing, also a free verse novel, received the Governor General’s Literary Award (Children’s Literature -Text) in 2010. Though Baggage is not a sequel to Fishtailing, readers who have encountered the earlier book will find a point of connection when Ms Nelson observes:
We all want to do the right thing
but after last year’s school trauma
with that boy from Central America,
it took months
to get back to normal.
Baggage is an excellent personal read, one that will leave readers with much to ruminate upon. Like all poetry, Baggage calls for being read aloud, and the novel would make an excellent resource for readers theatre. As well, drama teachers could easily adapt sections of the book into scenes.
Dave Jenkinson, CM’s editor, lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba.