Thursday, January 19, 2012
TWO BOOKS, TWO LOST GIRLS
Snow Apples. By Mary Razzell. Groundwood Books/House of Anansi press, 2006. Young Adult. 209 pages.
True Confessions of a Heartless Girl. By Martha Brooks. Groundwood Books, House of Anansi Press, 2002. Young Adult. 210 pages.
The main characters in both these novels are teenage girls who become pregnant. In Snow Apples, Sheila Brary lives on a remote island, coming of age in the days after World War II. Razzell uses Sheila's voice to tell her story. Sheila doubts herself, resenting her embittered mother while wishing for her wayward father's return home.
Sheila's greatest desire is to escape the domestic life her mother plans for her. Does Sheila's mother resent her own homebound fate, wishing to ensnare her daughter as a form of revenge? Or does she truly believe that marriage, babies, and an end to education are the best things for a young girl? Mrs. Brary's motivations are never quite clear. Life in a small town, with no opportunity to meet new people and hear new ideas, makes her unstable and insular. Mr. Brary's drinking and adultery do not help either.
It is against this straitjacketing of her life that Sheila seems to be rebelling. She challenges her mother's values by pushing for a spot in nursing school. She is stymied when her beloved older brother sides against her after a sexual assault by an older man. She befriends Helga, the town's outcast, who spends her days searching for the drowned bodies of her long-dead family. Sheila also babysits her drunken boyfriend before he impregnates and abandons her.
These experiences make Sheila feel powerless and resentful. They also ultimately help her build her own identity and become independent- as independent as any young woman could be in Canada during the late 1940's.
Noreen Stall, the 17-year-old heroine of Heartless Girl, has far less structure from which to escape. Her religious fanatic mother is little more than a shadow. Her stepfather's physical abuse gives her motivation to run away from home. So does her sister Gladys's marriage; Noreen sees it as a betrayal. Noreen runs first to Wesley, a sweet, gentle construction worker who loves her passionately. They are happy until he catches her in a lie. In an attempt to make things right, she decorates his apartment, stealing money from him to do so.
When Wesley confronts Noreen, she steals his truck and flees to Pembina Lake, a rural community that takes her in. Lynda, the owner of the town's cafe, lets her stay in a spare room. Dolores, the town's matriarch, nearly persuades Noreen to open up about her problems. By the time Noreen needs medical attention for her pregnancy, she has a support system in place.
But Noreen is reluctant to accept help. She has a history of harming others with her behavior. One of her first acts in Pembina Lake is to feed chicken bones to Lynda's 5-year old son's dog. The dog, Tessie, becomes seriously ill when the bones lodge in her intestines. Her life hangs in the balance, Noreen's actions come to light, and for a few chapters the reader wonders- did Noreen make a mistake, or was she trying to kill the dog?
The answer to that question turns out to be a huge theme in Heartless Girl. We are meant to learn some things about redemption, the definition of family, and the nature of choices.
Both Snow Apples and True Confessions of a Heartless Girl chronicle young women's attempts to define themselves, become independent, and establish rewarding relationships. Both authors treat teen pregnancy with empathy and compassion. On the one hand, they resist the easy trap of condemning adolescent sexuality. On the other hand, nothing they have written makes young motherhood seem alluring. In an era where shows like Teen Mom predominate and anxious fathers take their daughters to purity balls, teachers and parents should welcome books like these.