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A Sense of Truth

A Profile of Kevin Major

By Mary Duffy

Volume 17 Number 6
1989 November

Once a confused adolescent himself one of Canada's foremost young adult novelists discusses the role of the writer as critic in a changing society.

"Somebody once said, 'If you can get through childhood you have enough to write about for the rest of your life'," says Newfoundland writer Kevin Major, author of Hold Fast, Far from Shore, Thirty-six Exposures, Dear Bruce Springsteen, and, most recently, Blood Red Ochre. His own childhood was spent in Stephenville, Newfoundland, a fairly large town by Newfoundland standards, near an American Air Force base. Here he went through adolescence at a time when Newfoundland society was undergoing widespread change and disruption. The presence of an American air base provided a view of some of the diverse cultural elements that were to have a great impact on Newfoundland. Of the heroes in his novels Major feels that Lore in Thirty-six Exposures is closest in temperament to the adolescent he was, at times-unsure of himself and confused about his place in life.

Major spent four years as a full-time teacher. From this vantage point he noted that the adolescent years are a time in which books can have a dramatic influence on people. Some people read more in those years than at any other time, and books read then are liable to leave an impression that stays with the reader in later life.

But some young people in his classes had no interest in reading because they had trouble finding any familiar territory in books written by British or American authors. It was while Major was teaching grades seven and eight that the realistic school of Young Adult fiction was beginning to be published. Books such as The Outsiders enjoyed some popularity among his students, but there weren't many Canadian novels available, to say nothing of Newfoundland novels.

His own taste in literature runs to the lean, straightforward style of Hemingway's short stories, which call on the reader to fill in something from his own experience. Works he admires include Huckleberry Finn, Catcher in the Rye, and the novels of E.L. Decatur. He sees no reason to draw some distinction between YA fiction and other fiction: if a book is well written it should stand as a work of literature, despite the age of the characters or their point of view, since the thing that makes a book good is a sense of truth that emerges in reading it. This implies, incidentally, a critical view of society. Some YA books fail to provide this because the author has compromised the sense of truth or is tempted to write about what he imagines to be young people's interests rather than life generally. Also, after finding a successful formula, some writers end up repeating it.

As for the YA label Major finds it does have practical advantages for librarians and publishers, but if a book is really worth reading and has something to say, there is no reason for its readership to be limited at the outset.

In his earlier novels Major dealt with an important factor in Newfoundland society, the position of traditional Newfoundland moral values in the face of cultural transformation. He was born at the time of Confederation and has seen Newfoundland's isolation evaporate. Values emanating from the traditional sense of family, community, dependence on nature and self-sufficiency have changed accordingly. With isolation replaced by ready access to American cable TV, the cultural identity of Newfoundland has been eroded. The smallest outposts can tune in channels originating in Detroit, Michigan: if there's any culture more at odds with traditional Newfoundland culture, says Major, it would be the urban scene in Detroit. Social and economic changes have meant that young Newfoundlanders who traditionally prided themselves on being hardworking and independent must now decide whether to go on UIC benefits for half the year or leave the province.

Major feels that the themes in his books are sufficiently universal to be enjoyed by anyone. There is some Newfoundland dialect in the books, but not enough to make them incomprehensible to outsiders. He feels a good writer should be able to tell the story of a particular region authentically, retaining much of the local flavour, and at the same time interest people who are totally unfamiliar with it. Since his books are published in the United States and have been translated into French, German, Danish, Spanish and Hebrew, it seems he has been successful in this.

Realism in speech has also led to trouble with schools and school boards. Major has had the bizarre experience of being invited to give a reading at a school, only to have the reading cancelled when the person who invited him actually got down to reading one of his books. In Newfoundland the denominational school system allows religious groups to judge any book unfit for the whole system. This has happened to Major's books. He concedes that people ought to be able to control their own children's reading material if they feel strongly about it, but they should not be making the decision for everyone else, particularly in Newfoundland, where there are very few bookstores and the bulk of young people's reading is done at school. It is frustrating to go into a school in Newfoundland, says Major, to find that the very people who would enjoy the books and gain the most from them have never heard of him. It doesn't bother him that the books aren't on the curriculum, but they can't even be found in the school library,

Each book has been quite different in approach from its predecessor. His new book, Blood Red Ochre, contrasts the life of the Beothuks with that of modern Newfoundland youth. His interest in the Beothuks dates to being moved, as a young boy, by the story of their extinction as a result of disease, the harsh environment, and massacres by the settlers. As a teacher Major found that his students viewed the Beothuks as part of a distant period of history. Other books concentrated on their tragic end but Major wanted to describe their human, everyday existence and show how close they are to young Newfoundlanders of today. His juggling of present and past tenses is designed to minimize the time difference, and demonstrate how the important things in life remain constant.

Other projects, aside from his next book, a humorous YA novel, include a dramatic production of Hold Fast, to be staged by Newfoundland's Rising Tide Theatre Company. Major comments that he has enjoyed the work he has done on this so far, but he won't really know how he feels about it until he sees the results. Also, an adaptation of Dear Bruce Springsteen is to be produced in 1990 in Barcelona. (If this is done in Catalan it will surely make Major one of the very few Canadian writers to be translated into that language).

Other departures? Major says he is always looking for new perspectives and new ways to tell a story.

Mary Duffy is a children's and young adult librarian at Halifax City Regional Library.

Books by Kevin Major

Blood Red Ochre .Doubleday, 1989.

Dear Bruce Springsteen .Doubleday, 1987.

Far from Shore .Clarke, Irwin, 1980.

Thirty-six Exposures .Delacorte Press ,1984.

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