________________ CM . . . . Volume 21 Number 20 . . . . January 30, 2015

cover

Rain Shadow.

Valerie Sherrard.
Markham, ON: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2014.
150 pp., trade pbk., $12.95.
ISBN 978-1-55455-341-9.

Grades 5-10 / Ages 10-15.

Review by Ruth Latta.

**** /4

excerpt:

"You did a good job with the green and brown mountain."

Luke smiled. He pointed to the brown side and said, "This is a rain shadow."

I looked harder. "Where is the shadow?" I asked.

"It's not a shadow like the sun makes," Luke said. "A rain shadow happens when a cloud is forced to empty all its rain on one side of the mountain and there is nothing left for the other side."

Suddenly, it seemed as if I could hear Mira's voice in my ear, telling me she was the beautiful green side of the mountain and I was the rain shadow.

"It is true," I said. "I am like a rain shadow."....."I was thinking about what my sister Mira would say." Then I told him how she liked to tell me that she was a jewel and I was a stone, or she was a rose and I was a cabbage. Luke frowned but he did not ask any other questions and I went to look at more of the projects.

 

Rain Shadow is unusual in having a first-person narrator/protagonist who is, in her own words, "slow". Twelve-year-old Bethany (who has the further handicap of a limp) lives with her parents and 14-year-old sister, Mira, in rural Manitoba in 1949. Sherrard conveys Bethany's limitations by showing us her behaviour and thought processes. In one scene, an emergency situation, Bethany takes time out from the crisis for a snack. In another instance, when asked to slice snap beans, Bethany is hesitant for fear of hurting the beans. When Mira tells Bethany there are "special places" for children like her, "dark buildings with bars on the windows," she isn't sure if Mira is making up stories or if these places exist. She raises the question with her father who assures her she isn't going anywhere; then she knows such places exist, and is afraid.

     When Mira calls herself the sun (a source of heat and light) and Bethany, the moon, (which merely reflects), Bethany knows she is being belittled, but she is also happy with the comparison. Having misinterpreted "phases" of the moon as "faces" of the moon, she is glad to be like something that changes rather than the sun which always presents the same face to the world.

     When a family en route to Thompson, MB, stops by to ask for water, Bethany opens the door to them. Mother takes over and invites the strangers to afternoon tea. She asks Mira to help serve, and sends Bethany outdoors; obviously, she is ashamed of her younger daughter. Daddy, however, appreciates Bethany as she is, telling her that no one has any call to think themselves better than she is. Clearly Mother's impatience with Bethany influences Mira, although Mira's attitude toward her sister varies.

     Walking back from their neighbour's home, Mira tells Bethany that, when school resumes in a few weeks, she won't let anyone pick on her. The girls are returning home from what seems like a failed visit to a neighbour. Elderly Mrs. Goldsborough, who is kind to Bethany, had invited both girls for rice pudding, but she failed to come to the door when they knocked. Impatient to get home to her own pursuits, Mira won't wait, but Bethany senses that something is wrong with her old friend and returns to the neighbour's home. When she finds Mrs. Goldsborough on the floor with a broken leg, she phones her mother who summons an ambulance.

     Later, at the village store, neighbours reward Bethany's heroism with praise and treats, but her moment in the spotlight is brief as Mira is ill. When the Thompson-bound man phones to say that one of his sons has come down with polio, the terrified parents call the doctor who finds that Mira has the disease. Confused and lonely, Bethany is left with a sitter while the parents take Mira to hospital in Winnipeg.

     Mira's death is a shock to Bethany and to readers. Her wake, held at home, is sparsely attended. Mother is hurt, but Daddy points out that "People are afraid" of getting polio. People in the throes of grief are often unreasonable, and Mother is no exception. She takes out her anger on Bethany, even accusing her of opening the door to polio the day the family showed up for water.

"You don't know how I feel, watching her hobble around the house with that blank face and open mouth!" Mother shouts to Daddy. "If we had to lose a child, why did it have to be Mira?"

     Her pain and rage are in character because, earlier, Sherrard showed her being impatient with Bethany and showing an obvious preference for her "normal" child. Bethany avoids her mother and, indeed, she fears her after the above remark in which she wishes Bethany dead. Grief-stricken, lonely and unhappy, Bethany is sent to her aunt and uncle and their cruel prankster children. School is her only consolation, a place where she has friends and a kind teacher, and where she receives an award as the student who makes the greatest effort. One of the kind students is 14-year-old Luke Haliwell, who will be familiar to those who have read The Glory Wind, Sherrard's novel that preceded Rain Shadow. Luke has seen how a child with problems can be ostracized, and, from his experiences in the earlier novel, he knows how bereavement feels.

     Several Glory Wind characters reappear in Rain Shadow as kinder and more sensitive people than they were in the earlier novel. The Glory Wind strongly implied that small communities breed small-minds. At the beginning of each section/"book" of Rain Shadow, Sherrard presents a scientific-sounding paragraph about the rain shadow effect, including one which emphasizes the aridity of land in the rain shadow. Yet, in this latest novel, many of the folks in Sherrard's fictional rural community seem to have human kindness flowing in their veins. The community seems redeemed, and Bethany appears to be a drought-resistant shrub that can grow in rain shadow conditions.

     Early in the novel, we learn that Bethany has a keepsake, a cent cut in half, which looks like a half-moon. She first noticed it when it fell out of the pocket of Gracie Moor, a classmate from two years earlier. Bethany later found it in the school grounds, but she wouldn't return it because Gracie was "gone then" (Because Bethany might not know about it, the dramatic disappearance of Gracie in The Glory Wind is not mentioned.) Late in Rain Shadow, Bethany meets a woman who has the other half of the penny and a strong need to mother someone.

     One need not read The Glory Wind to appreciate Rain Shadow; the latter novel can stand on its own. It is another strong work in the realist tradition, presenting the past without rose-coloured glasses. Readers emerge from the story with a fresh awareness of what kindness and decency to others really mean. Sherrard has made good use of metaphor, characterization and point-of-view to create another outstanding novel.

Highly Recommended.

For more information about Ruth Latta's young adult novels, The Songcatcher and Me and The Secret of White Birch Road, contact info@baico.ca.

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

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ISSN 1201-9364
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