By Carol Matas
Orca Books, 128 pages, $8.95
By Colin Frizzell
Orca Books, 138 pages, $8.95
Out of the confusion of adolescence, of historical upheaval and personal loss, a renewed sense of maturity, family and individuality is born for the protagonists of two new novels. Although very different in scope and style, these books by Carol Matas and Colin Frizzell both offer thought-provoking reading for young teens.
Award-winning Winnipeg novelist Matas continues her exploration of the Jewish experience in the Second World War with The Whirlwind; this time, her focus is the plight of enemy aliens in countries that are their homes or refuges. Having escaped Nazi Germany in 1941 with his parents and sister, Ben Friedman is living in Seattle. Ben may have reached safety, but he's deeply traumatized by his experiences in Germany, and deeply afraid that he will meet with prejudice and persecution in the United States. Prejudice he certainly finds, and when his only friend John Ogawa is sent to an internment camp after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Ben anticipates that Jews will soon be targets of a Nazi-style persecution.
This is an issues novel as well as a historical one, and the issues aren't easy: humanity's capacity for cruelty; the reason for suffering; the intolerance toward German, Jewish and Japanese citizens and refugees in Canada and the United States during the 1930s and '40s. Canada's shameful stance on Jewish immigration and Japanese internment is not glossed over. Matas's novel is a timely look at the treatment of foreign nationals and citizens born in other countries during times of strife. Perhaps young readers will make the leap from the 1940s to this decade, and see that the all-too-human tendency toward xenophobia needs to be the front of a political and personal struggle.
Ben's struggle is intensely personal, as his narration makes clear. His anger is visceral and instinctual throughout the novel, and it distorts his perception of events in his new home. A great part of the novel is Ben's coming to terms with this anger, his realization that although he is confronted with prejudice in the United States, the degree is different, and that if he anticipates kindness and humanity rather than hatred, he will be more likely to find them. These are complicated ideas, especially given the novel's historical backdrop. At times I wished Matas had more fully fleshed out the complexities of this thinking. But she's tackling several issues in a relatively short novel that already requires considerable context, and she aims to be easily accessible to her readers.
Ben's relationships with his father and with God are fraught; he blames both for his trauma and anxiety. In one of his many exchanges with his father, Ben is reminded that people have a choice about how they behave, how they respond to situations and how they undertake the responsibilities of their lives. Ben learns the lesson as he struggles with his understanding not only of his own responsibility to his family, and for certain aspects of his social situation, but also with his understanding of God. Throughout the novel, Matas uses two prominent stories from the Hebrew Bible -- Job's patient suffering and Jacob wrestling with an angel -- to complement Ben's own struggles. The presence of the latter is particularly intriguing; it hints at a deeply spiritual dimension to the story, and is crucial to Ben's eventual recovery.
In Just J, Jenevieve's recovery from the trauma of her mother's death from cancer comes in part by helping her Aunt Guin restore an old house by the beach in Eastern Ontario. The rescuing of the dilapidated house stands as a potent symbol here. J, as Jenevieve prefers to be called, is overwhelmed by her anger at the loss of her mother and her father's seeming helplessness in the face of his own grief. As she helps her eccentric aunt with the house, and as she and her new friend Connor look for an old dance hall said to have been buried under sand dunes long ago, J comes to a new understanding of her emotions and, like Ben, to a realization that one's experience of reality is intimately tied up with one's perception of it.
Like Matas's novel, Frizzell's is narrated in the first person by an angry, traumatized teen. There are times when the voice falters, when the writing seems overdone even for this intense and imaginative girl, but for the most part, Frizzell's prose is engaging and well crafted, while Matas's is more serviceable than beautiful. J's character is more fully developed than Ben's: One has a much greater sense of her than one has of Ben, and a clearer sense of how she reacts to the people in her life. A reader can't help but connect with J; she's witty and engaging, despite her hurt and rebellion. The barriers Ben creates between himself and the other characters in The Whirlwind -- he comments at one point that he seems almost to act in isolation -- are palpable for the reader, too. I felt for Ben; I felt with J. Perhaps it is a difference in emphasis -- Matas emphasizes issues and plot, Frizzell character and voice.
Or perhaps it is the difference of the scope of tragedy evoked -- a racial/cultural/religious devastation of unspeakable proportions is given a human face in Matas's novel, but its larger historical and ethical significance is never overshadowed by the character she creates to facilitate her discussion; the personal tragedy Frizzell evokes is local and common, and the scale is so entirely different from that explored in Matas's novel that character is the site of exploration.
Marnie Parsons works part-time at Granny Bates Children's Books in St. John's.