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Review: Walking Backward, by Catherine Austen

What I love about the best children's literature is the authors' ability to surrender to their imaginations, their faith in their vision and their commitment to their characters. This combination of skills captivates their young readers, sweeps them along. As does their honesty, because - let's face it - no one recognizes phoniness faster than young people.

In her outstanding debut novel, Quebec's Catherine Austen exhibits every one of these special gifts. Walking Backward is the story of 12-year-old Josh and his struggle to come to terms with the death of his mother. The story takes the form of a journal, which has become a bit of a literary cliché. Not in this case, however, where recording one's emotions proves integral to plot development. In the absence of parental support and religious guidelines, Josh's journal helps him articulate his despair and confusion.

Josh's mother was a popular professor of epic literature with a serious fear of snakes. When one slithers from beneath her seat while she is driving, she loses control of the car and crashes into a tree. The book opens on July 30, exactly one month after her death, and covers the five or so weeks leading up to the start of the school year.

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The psychiatrist gives Josh, his father and even his four-year-old brother, Sammy, their own journals. He encourages them to write down their feelings. But Josh hardly knows how he will make the time. Since the accident, his father has been holed up in the basement building a time machine he hopes will turn back the clock. Wrapped in the fog of his own grief, he completely ignores his suffering children.

Josh's resentment - and his own sorrow - must take a back seat to caring for Sam. For weeks, the boys have been living in their pyjamas, staying up past midnight and surviving on a steady diet of noodles. Josh worries about his little brother's troubling new habits: Sam speaks in the squeaky voice of the girl Power Ranger he identifies with his mother. He has also taken to walking backward so that he can remember people's faces after he leaves them, in case he never sees them again.

Austen illustrates how difficult it is for Josh ... to remain depressed 24 hours a day

Josh is so angry that he begins to imagine his father is responsible for his mother's death. He secretly accuses him of placing the snake in her car in order to prevent her from returning to work, or to stop her from meeting a lover. At the same time, he imagines a stalker - a disgruntled student, perhaps - who may have wished his mother harm.

The reader assumes these outrageous speculations to be the product of Josh's anxiety-ridden, grief-stricken imagination, until we learn that a mystery indeed attaches to the accident. The police interviewed the boys several times about their parents' relationship, and in fact his Mom and Dad had been experiencing a rough patch. A thread of intrigue about the death runs through to the end of the story. Josh is also concerned about the randomness and plain inanity of his mother's passing: dying because of a fear of snakes! He is afraid she will win one of those Darwin Awards for people who die doing foolish things. "Their stupidity caused their death," he thinks, "like natural selection."

With Walking Backward, Austen comments - subtly, non-judgmentally - on the secular, nuclear nature of the contemporary North American family. She suggests it lacks the manpower and emotional resources to manage during times of trial. For guidance in defining his grief, Josh considers the customs of various religions. He learns that in the Hindu faith, for instance, people wear white and officially mourn for 13 days, while in the Jewish faith the week after the funeral is called shiva.

But Josh is not a believer. He does not have faith in the possibilities of a time machine, as his father does; he does not believe in the power of Scooby-Doo or the Power Rangers, like Sam; and even though he would like to, he does not believe in God. He thinks about the Holocaust and all the Jewish people believing - waiting and wishing - for God to save them. But "millions of people were killed," Josh says. "Millions of people wishing as hard as anybody ever wished anything." Phew.

But Austen also illustrates how difficult it is for Josh and even his father to remain depressed 24 hours a day, especially with an adorable four-year-old in the house. Sammy's measures of coping keep the reader in stitches. He pretends his mother is alive by speaking with her whenever he feels the urge: He takes on both sides of the conversation. On one occasion, Josh says, "He spent the whole [car]ride talking to Mom in a small whispery voice. He looked left to ask a question and right to answer it. That was definitely weird." At Josh's soccer game, Sammy mortifies their father by cheering loudly in the voice of the female Power Ranger.

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Josh and Sammy are completely charming individuals. Through their kindness and intelligence, and through the memories scattered throughout Josh's journal, we receive a powerful impression of their extraordinary mother. We feel a genuine sense of loss at not having known her.

With the help of a journal, Josh writes his way to the centre of his pain and starts to come to terms with his grief. The novel demonstrates the power of writing your own life.

I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Catherine Austen keeps a journal as well. Her writing cuts straight to the heart. She delivers a wise, rich novel, wonderfully compelling for children and adults alike.

Donna Bailey Nurse is a Toronto writer, editor and critic.

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