Monday, December 12, 2011
BOOK REVIEW: POSTER BOY
by Dede Crane. Groundwood Books, House of Anansi press. Young Adult. 214 pages, trade paperback, 2009.
Buy the book
Would you be willing to rearrange your entire life, to the point of alienating your peers, on the slim chance that doing so would save someone else's life?
Dede Crane takes the political and makes it uncomfortably personal in this engrossing book. Main character Gray Fallon is a middle-class teenager who enjoys getting high, chasing girls, and hanging out with his friends. He also likes to torment his younger sister, Maggie, who he calls Maggot. The abuse is not one-sided; Maggie calls her brother "Graydumb" (his full name is Graydon) and makes him feel intellectually inadequate. Maggie is a middle school scientist who is happy studying pictures of insects or experimenting with jars of rice.
The family dynamics are skewed when Maggie's mysterious pain leads to a doctor visit and a grave diagnosis. Gray's parents focus all their energy on Maggie's care. His mother neglects her silk-screen business. His father, a career academic, faces the crisis with sheer logic and facts. Gray becomes obsessed with finding the cause of Maggie's illness. He convinces his mother to jettison every product in their house which contains potentially dangerous chemicals. This includes cleaning products, shampoo, and meat- the family goes (mostly) vegetarian.
Crane gives her readers a crash course on environmental hazards and green living. Telling the story through Gray's eyes keeps Poster Boy from reading like a lecture or polemic on the dark side of consumer culture. He is basically insecure, with longish hair and a stoner's sense of humor hiding his real desire to help those around him. His attempts to hook up with popular girl Natalie and lose what he calls his "v-card" form an interesting subplot. Gray's friend Davis tries to overcome his own father's abuse by growing pot plants and spinning endless Chuck Norris jokes. It sort of works, just as Gray's efforts to clean up his lifestyle and raise awareness sort of work.
Gray eventually retreats from everything he knows. He comes to believe that his house, school, and part-time job at a theater are all fraught with danger. It is hard to argue with Crane's research. Our world is in need of help, and there are ways to reduce one's impact without going to the extremes that Gray eventually does. But in the end, this book is less about activism and more about acceptance. Each member of Gray's community must deal with the trauma of Maggie's illness. For Gray, this means coming of age and understanding that his family's need for him is greater than his need to make a statement.
Dede Crane, who has taught creative writing at the University of Victoria, said in an interview that she second-guesses her writing, marking up her own copies of her books with perpetual edits and revisions. As a writer, she is never satisfied with her knowledge or her decisions. She keeps writing anyway. That contradiction forms the central theme and conflict of Poster Boy. Gray will never live a perfect life, succeed in all his endeavors, or even answer his questions about life and death. But in attempting the impossible, Gray gains a life worth living and becomes compassionate. It is a necessary message for teen readers as well as adults.