Reviewed here: Razor's Edge, by Nikki Tate; Oil King Courage, by Sigmund Brouwer
Let's go with the good book first. Razor's Edge is fun to read because the teenage boys in it are forced to confront very difficult situations at Blackdown Park, where they own Three Muskateers, a team of Standardbred harness racing horses. The friends have scraped some money together and organized their time efficiently enough to have their own little racing business, and to go to school. Their days start before sunrise at the stables and end well after sunset: There is no end to the tasks associated with trying to realize their dream.
But that dream gets derailed when it is clear someone is stealing precious things from the stables, the horses don't perform as well as the boys hope, they're not making any money and narrator Travis finds that making out with Sassy feels better than hanging out with his best friends/business partners.
Add a serious bout of racism as Jasper, the one partner who is First Nations, gets accused of being a thief, plus fist fights between best friends, domestic violence and alcoholism, and you have the lives of way too many kids.
Author Nikki Tate writes a flawless teenage tale. There is no black, no white; just, as is the case in life, only shades of confusing and complicated grey wound around hearts and hormones. "Sassy's breath is warm and soft on my neck. She presses a gentle kiss against my throat and then another a little higher up. Her fingertips brush the bruises on my cheeks so softly I barely feel her touch. Another kiss and then another and then her lips find mine. By the time I finally pull free my truck windows are completely fogged up."
Remind you of anyone? What teenager won't have to confront a broken heart and a dream changed to nightmare because of poverty and domestic violence? How timely this novel is as the latest report from Campaign 2000 tells us one in 10 children in Canada lives below the poverty line.
Even though Tate gathers up the loose ends in the final chapter, we see that some characters will understand life in a deeper and more meaningful way while others will become the collateral damage. Tate offers hope and sadness, not as a solution but as reality.
Oil King Courage delivers none of the above. Author Sigmund Brouwer lives in Red Deer, Alberta, and Eagleville, Tennessee, but sets the novel in Inuvik and surrounding Arctic communities. Brouwer visited the Arctic with retired hockey player Brian Trottier (who plays a cameo in the book) as part of the Schlumberger Canada "Literacy for Life" program.
But the novel's narrative won't fool young readers no matter where they live. It partly reads like a badly written history or geography text. What ever happened to "Don't tell, show"? Here's a typical "lesson" in the form of narration from the lead character Gary Itskut. "Here in the delta, the Mackenzie was broken up into dozens of shallow channels as it spread through a marshy area about sixty miles wide. For the water to get here, in began 2,600 miles away, where the head rivers of the Peace and Athabasca River flowed into Great Slave Lake." I have never met a teenage boy, even a nerd, who talked like that, but Gary does throughout the book.
On top of wondering how many kids would keep reading beyond the geography lessons, I did not find the plot believable, and the devices used to get to the climax did not ring true. For instance, how can a boy who is rather crazy over a girl believe he's talking to her on the phone when a 50-year-old man is actually whispering on the other end? Not.
In terms of characters, Oil King Courage has two male characters and, like Razor's Edge, one is white, one aboriginal. This time the sport is hockey, and there is a cute girl who captures the attention of the narrator by the second paragraph. I liked Brouwer's line, "Whenever she was around I found it hard to breathe," and looked forward to that relationship developing. But Lizzie turned out to be a mere adjective to help describe the main relationship, which of course is between the boys and the game of hockey. Reuben, Lizzie's brother, is drafted into the Edmonton Oil Kings, a Western Hockey League team. When he comes home, Reuben, another teammate and Gary tour, playing three-on-threes. Lizzie gets to watch.
Added to the completely characterless Lizzie is the sexist explanation behind the resolution of this book. It turns out good ol' grandma is saving a piece of art so she can sell it and put her grandson and his pal Gary through university. But why, a reader might ask, doesn't she want to put her granddaughter Lizzie through university too? Conveniently, Lizzie, the love interest of the narrator, completely disappears from the book after he rescues her from a carbon monoxide-filled house. We never meet her again.
This is, at the very least, a very poor organization of characters. How could an editor not ask, "What happened to Lizzie?" At its worst, this oversight is an unintentional but sickening metaphor for how aboriginal women in Canada, particularly in the North, really do disappear. This close to the 20th anniversary of the Montreal Massacre, shouldn't girls matter in books for boys?
Laura Robinson wrote Crossing the Line: Violence and Sexual Assault in Canada's National Sport. Her children's book, Cyclist BikeList: The Book for Every Rider, will be published this spring. She coaches the Anishinaabe Racers mountain bike and Nordic ski team at Cape Croker First Nation Elementary School.