________________ CM . . . . Volume XIII Number 18 . . . . April 27, 2007


Finding Elmo. (Orca Currents).

Monique Polak.
Victoria, BC: Orca, 2007.
102 pp., pbk. & cl., $9.95 (pbk.), $16.95 (cl.)..
ISBN 978-1-55143-686-9 (pbk), ISBN 978-1-55143-688-3 (cl.).

Grades 5-10 / Ages 10-15.

Review by Ruth Latta.

*** /4


Animals are easy. All you have to do is feed them and pet them and clean their cages and they'll be friends with you forever. Human beings are another story. Human beings are way more complicated.

Fifteen-year-old Tim Barnes has a special rapport with Elmo, the black cockatoo in his father's pet shop, Fur and Feathers. Like many of the birds in the shop, Elmo outlived his owner, an old sailor, and was given to Mr. Barnes. Tim hopes that Elmo's hefty price of $2,000 will deter buyers. Despite his dad's warning not to get too attached to any of the animals because they are all for sale, Tim sees in Elmo some badly needed continuity as the family's move to a new section of Montreal has changed all his human relationships.

     Tim seldom sees his school friend, Philippe, who lives in his old neighbourhood. Home has been a mess for a year because his mother (who is allergic to animals) has her hands full with the move and with demanding one-year-old twins. Tim sympathizes with her exhaustion - she falls asleep at the table - but is too busy helping his father to lend her a hand. Who can blame him for counting the years until he'll be old enough to move out?

     Worst of all, Tim feels at odds with his father. While aware that his dad genuinely loves animals and runs a humane, uncrowded store, Tim is worried that his father has gotten over-extended financially. He hasn't been able to afford more staff for the new shop in an upscale mall, and so there is more work for Tim.

     Mr. Barnes was offered three months free rent by the mall manager, Mr. Morgan, but the grace period is up, and he is having difficulty paying. When Tim overhears his plan to rent out the larger birds to parties and conventions, he confronts his father who flies into a rage over his son's trying to tell him how to run his business.

     Mr. Morgan orders Mr. Barnes to throw a party in his pet shop for people who work for the real estate company that owns the mall and is building a nearby high rise tower. Both Mr. Barnes and Tim are worked off their feet serving the guests, and, at some point, Tim realizes that, in the hustle and bustle, Elmo has disappeared.

     Who has birdnapped Elmo? Tim's father? For the insurance money? Apparently not, for he tells the police that he has let his insurance lapse.

     Giving up on his father and the cops, Tim takes matters into his own hands and searches for the black cockatoo. He enlists the aid of another teenager, Sapna Singh, who helps her grandfather in his mall food outlet, and Rodney, a 10-year-old who hangs around the pet shop. In Googling for information on black cockatoos, Tim discovers that Elmo is a native of Australia, one of a vanishing species, and priceless. 

     One wonders why neither Tim nor his father, who take such an interest in their animals, never got around to reading up on black cockatoos at the time when Elmo arrived at their first store. Since Elmo is such a long-term friend and fixture on their premises, one would imagine they would have been curious as to his origins, and thus would have found out his true worth at the outset. It is unconvincing when characters are obtuse for the sake of the plot.

     The strongest part of Finding Elmo lies in the plot below the surface - the father-son relationship. The tensions between Tim and his father ring true. Wondering how they would become reconciled kept me reading. 

     Author Monique Polak, a Montreal, a bird lover and former budgie owner, is also a competent writer who presents the ethnic mix of a large urban centre in a matter-of-fact way. She furthers the father-son theme through the character, Rodney, the fatherless kid whose mother dumps him at the mall for hours and picks him up when it suits her. While Rodney is too young to be the friend that Tim would prefer, he becomes a kid-brother while demonstrating to the reader that Tim is fortunate in having a father and a traditional family.

     Recovering the bird requires Tim to climb a scaffolding, eavesdrop, and then stow away in a van. The mastermind behind the birdnapping, Mr. Morgan, is ultimately arrested. The author winds up the novel with an upbeat party at Fur and Feathers (a nice balance and contrast to the terrible party early in the novel in which Elmo was stolen). At this celebration of Elmo's return (and the end of Mr. Morgan's regime as mall manager), Tim's father speaks warmly of his son, and Tim tells him, "Whatever I know about taking care of animals I learned from you." The father-son rift is so healed that Mr. Barnes and Tim go over the store accounts together on Saturdays. Elmo's ending is, perhaps, the happiest of all - the Kangaroo Island Conservation Society in Australia sends him a mate so that he can breed.


Ruth Latta is working on the fourth of her series of mystery novels for grown-ups, published by Baico Publishing of Ottawa.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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