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book review

Robert Everett Green, Globe and Mail reporter and authorSarah Mongeau-Birkett/The Globe and Mail

In the spring, a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love, no?

Tennyson first spun that line in his poem Locksley Hall, where a rejected suitor returns to childhood haunts. The young man's fancy also lightly turns to thoughts of destruction and revenge, and to that big fat poetic question: What's it all about?

Tennyson claimed he was tackling "young life, its good side, its deficiencies, and its yearnings." Robert Everett-Green does the same thing in his new novel, In a Wide Country. Only his fancies take a young man on a summer road trip from Winnipeg to points west, at the whim of that other woman Tennyson's suitor was smarting over: Mom.

Jasper is a very young man, just 12 when his mother, whom he calls Corinne, hooks up with the generous – if mansplaining – Dean. No fella can interest Corinne for long, and she whisks Jasper off for parts unknown in her new Corvair, leaving Dean and his engagement ring in the Manitoba dust. From there, the story meanders through meetings with old and new acquaintances, as Jasper ponders "the sorrows of my pipsqueak life."

Set in the early 1960s, the book is a reminder of how Victorian that time was. Jasper is a sharp-eyed witness to the constraints of female existence and the novel is good on the boy's conflicting loyalties to social codes and to his freewheeling mama. Jasper knows every detail of Corinne's makeup routine, zips up the backs of her dresses, watches her model underwear for catalogues and private sales and sees her naked in the bathroom. Everett-Green captures that childhood oscillation between fascination and disgust, need and freedom, in a deft portrait of our narrator as a young man of the period.

The novel conjures the sixties without wallowing in nostalgic detail, serving up only the occasional well-placed Cadillac or Danish modern chair. Gently but insistently paced, In a Wide Country wanders along almost without a sense of time. Darker moments are presented as mere bumps in the road. Days roll by without purpose or destination, but that's part of the book's fixation on the nature of story itself: Where does it start, where does it end?

Unlike Corinne with her throwaway bedtime tales, Jasper is always looking for "a clear outcome." Although the author pushes this metaphor quite hard in places, when he describes Jasper learning about the physical nature of the universe – constantly creating, "like a big dirty sow … no beginning, no end" – he grips the heartache and thrill of a child's attempt at understanding. (And there's Mom, again.)

The sow explanation comes from the astronomer father of a girl Jasper falls for in Edmonton. If there's anything coming-of-age novels have taught us about boys, it's that they're desperately hungry for dads (maybe even more than for glimpses of underclothes). In a Wide Country is full of imperfect fathers, including Jasper's: dads who drink or otherwise disappoint, die or otherwise disappear. In his need to feel loyal to someone, the narrator longs to attach himself somewhere. Although his final choice may not be ideal, there's little judgment from the author or the adult Jasper, just a wistful remembrance of being that child who is father of his grown self, to paraphrase another 19th-century poem.

Of all its Victorian forebears, this novel's clearest, despite its realism, is Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Jasper has frequent dreams about giants and miniature boys, growing and shrinking, à la Alice. As in her world, there's hard truth beneath the quirkiness; at both stories' hearts is a child facing adult life, with all its head-snapping sex, lies and power games. Jasper's dealings with other young people are often funhouse-mirror versions of the adults', whether comparing genitals or weapons. When another of Corinne's would-be boyfriends tells Jasper to "think twice about growing up," you get it.

Tennyson went back to Locksley Hall with a sequel, Sixty Years After. This time, the now-elderly suitor muses to his grandson about the state of the world, as well as his lost beloved. In a Wide Country is also bookended by later-life perspective. In spite of some wrap-ups in the last chapter, questions remain and there's no truly life-changing reveal for Jasper. So what is it all about, in the end? Tennyson's suitor decides, "Love will conquer at the last." In this ultimately tender novel, too, the point of love is love.

Alix Hawley is the author of All True Not a Lie in It, which won the First Novel Award.

Funding for school libraries in Canada is woefully inadequate and children at high-needs elementary schools are paying the price. Read Between the Lines, a documentary produced by the Indigo Love of Reading Foundation, captures the importance of early literacy and the challenges we face in Canada by underfunding school libraries.

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