CM . . .
. Volume XIX Number 1. . . .September 7, 2012
How to Tend a Grave.
Winnipeg, MB: Great Plains Teen Fiction, 2012.
178 pp., trade pbk., $14.95.
Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up.
Review by Joanne Peters.
"There's been an accident," the female cop says. "A hit-and-run."
Liam picks up one of the pillows his mom had made to accessorize the sofa. She spent weeks finding the right lime and hot pink fabric, in a geometric pattern she called "sixties retro." . . . "What's that got to do with my mom?"
The female cop sets her notebook in her lap. Reaches over to pat his shoulder, then pulls back before she actually touches him. "Monica Hall," she says. "Monica Hall, your mother, I am so, so sorry, but she was the victim." Their eyes meet and he can see she's not being fake. She really hates telling him this and is almost ready to cry herself. "I know this is going to be a terrible shock for you. But she's dead."
"What?" That can't be true. Half an hour ago it was just a normal night, with him falling asleep on their first-ever-brand-new-sofa, watching sports and listening to music. Waiting for his mom to come home.
Waiting for her to wake him up so he'd know she was okay. Then he'd have a snack and go to bed. His mom would stay up, relaxing with a glass of wine and maybe watching a movie. Then in the morning he'd go to school and she'd sleep until noon.
But this cop just told him his mom is dead.
Liam Hall, 15, knows his mother works in a risky business. A co-partner in an enterprise called Arabella Investments, Monica Hall doesn't sell mutual funds or stocks. Her professional name is Kandi, and her clients are invited to "invest in [their] deepest desires"; as a "quality escort." she "charged top dollar and was always in demand" (131). She could have been the victim of rape, brutality, or STD infection. Death by vehicular accident is always unexpected, no matter how your parents make their living. Within two days of his mother's death, Liam has met with his grandfather, Gully, (the two have had exactly three prior visits), packed up his belongings, and with Gully, heads down the 401 from Toronto to Monica's home town of Dunlane. She is buried in Dunlane's Mount Hope & Glory Cemetery. There's no funeral, no graveside service, no one at the interment except, Liam, Gully, and his friend, the cemetery caretaker, Pete Reyburn.
Liam isn't thrilled at moving to Dunlane (the town his mother left, when she was a pregnant 17- year-old), but he has no other option. Thanks to the generosity of an older, wealthy client, known only as "Mr. Cash & Condo." Monica and Liam had lived very comfortably. Mr. C & C set up the two of them in a luxury condo in downtown Toronto; he was in love with Monica, wanted her to give up "the game." and marry him. But, upon learning of Monica's death, he disavows any knowledge of either her or her son. Monica spent plenty on clothes, shoes, and high-end personal care, and so there's nothing for Liam to inherit: no insurance money or savings. For now, it's Dunlane and life with Gully. However, that might not be so bad. Gully is a no-nonsense, solid kind of guy. A guard at Millhaven Prison, he's amazingly fit, an expert gardener, a talented cook, and just the kind of father figure that Liam has been missing for his entire life.
The week after his mother's burial, Liam begins school at Dunlane District High School (DDHS). Loss is really starting to hit him hard, and he dreads the place. It's a big change from his small, inner-city high school with an ethnically diverse and largely academically-motivated population of about 600; DDHS is a mega-school of 1200 mostly white, largely unmotivated kids drawn from the town and surrounding rural area. Monica Hall also attended DDHS, but Liam's fears that people will be asking questions about the former Miss Dunlane of 1996 are groundless. The place is enveloped in cliquey, adolescent ennui. Still, Liam is shaken by an encounter with a tattoo-encrusted lout who taunts him with the handle of "Ghoul Guy" because of Liam's daily visits to his mother's grave and who warns Liam that the cemetery is the turf of a group who call themselves "Y4C" (Youth 4 Crime). Compared to the real, knife-wielding gangs at Liam's inner-city former high school, Youth (real name: Jordan), and his female sidekick, Crime (real name: Christine), are posers, a pair of "spoiled rich-kid-playing-badass types" (29). Like all gangs, Y4C tags available flat surfaces with "Y4C4EVER!" graffiti, swarm elderly people on the town's Main Street, and go on periodic rampages of destructiveness. Liam knows they are trouble, his grandfather knows that they are trouble, and Liam has to figure out how to deal with them.
Liam isn't the only one DDHS student who is grieving deeply; Harmony Trahern is also 15, a sad and sweet young thing who also hangs around Mount Hope & Glory, recording the names of the many infants buried there. She pens long entries into a grief journal, and these epistles intersperse with the narrative of Liam's story. One day, they meet at Mount Hope & Glory, and Liam is overwhelmed, both by her fragile beauty, as well as her strange and mysterious presence. Liam is cautious about relationships: "he always figured he might be thirty or something before he could even talk to a girl. Before he met the right one. One who could make him forget that his mom had sex for money." (132)
Harmony also has history with Youth and Crime. About a year ago, Youth was still Jordan Yale, newly arrived at DDHS after being kicked out of his latest boarding school, and Crime was Christine Dobrinski and Harmony's best friend. As Harmony's story unfolds, and she and Liam spend more time together at the cemetery, readers learn the source of her intense, inconsolable grief: the death of her baby, fathered by Jordan/Youth, which she miscarried after 19 weeks. All the while, Y4C becomes ever more threatening both to Liam and Harmony, and finally, one Saturday, the gang trashes the beautiful and historic monuments in the cemetery, including Harmony's favourite, a small stone cherub marking the resting place of a little girl who is now "always an angel." (141) Worst of all, Liam is a participant in his own destructive rampage. After learning that his father is Pete Reyburn, Gully's friend and Monica's high school history teacher, and stoked on a combination of rage and grief, Liam desecrates his mother's grave, spray painting obscenities on her stone marker.
How to Tend a Grave is a dense novel, telling stories of intense personal grief which, like loss itself, are multi-layered and authentic. Family secrets have power, and Liam and Harmony's life crises unearth plenty about their families of origin; after yet another revelation about his mother, Liam's resigned response is, "yet another thing she failed to tell me." Liam is something of a rarity in teen fiction, a strong, intelligent young man, wiser than his 15 years, yet baffled by the crazed behaviour he enacts when he is in "Ghoul Guy" mode. As for Harmony, well, she does seem like a bit of a "crazy chick" (as almost everyone in the novel describes her, including herself), and, at times, I found her journal entries took some unraveling; she has an almost "stream of consciousness" style, and the font used to replicate the look of a personal journal made for difficult reading. And the account of her miscarriage and her dead child's "un-funeral" are told in graphic detail – let's just say it's not for the weak of stomach. But, she's as much of an outsider as Liam, and it's hard not to feel sympathetic for both of them.
As for the adults in this novel, except for Gully, they are more notable for their failings than their strengths. Still, it helps to remember that these "wrinklies" are being seen through adolescent eyes which can be notoriously critical of their elders. Author Shipley has a keen ear for catching the nuances of high school life and language, and while the dialogue of the Y4C gang is peppered with profanity, there's nothing any teen reader hasn't heard on the street, in the hallways of their high schools, or said themselves. Besides, Y4C'ers are gang members, and it's expected.
I think that Liam's story can appeal strongly to guys; he is certainly the stronger, more deeply developed of the two main characters, and, although incisive and sensitive, he's no wuss, either. The dried roses on the book's front cover might make it hard to convince a male reader to pick up the book, but if he can get past that, and read the first chapter (and get past Harmony's journal entries, which really won't appeal to a male reader), I believe that he could really get involved with Liam's story. A worthwhile acquisition for a high school library, but read the entire book just in case someone has issues with language, or content (high school beauty queen becomes a hooker, but is a devoted mom).
Joanne Peters, a retired teacher-librarian, lives in Winnipeg, MB.
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