________________ CM . . . . Volume VIII Number 14 . . . . March 15, 2002

Cover The Countess & Me.

Paul Kropp.
Markham, ON: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2002.
144 pp., cloth, $19.95 (cl.).
ISBN 1-55041-680-4.

Grades 5-8 /Ages 10-13.

Review by Dave Jenkinson.

Reviewed from Uncorrected Proof.

*** /4


The old lady set the burlap bag down on the ground and untied the drawstring. The cloth fell down and revealed the most amazing thing - a transparent skull. It was almost the size of a person's head, shaped like a real skull, but perfectly clear. Someone had carved indentations for eyes and fashioned an opening where a nose would have been. But the scariest part was the teeth, which were smiling in a really gruesome way.

I don't know how long I just stared at the skull, watching the light bounce around inside it, examining the dark eye sockets, amazed that something could be so beautiful and so horrible all at once.

"No, don't touch it," the old lady shouted.

Jordan Bellemare, 13, has recently moved from Winnipeg, MB, to a new subdivision in Surrey, BC, with his single mother and eight-year-old stepsister Priscilla, aka Miss P. (for Perfect). Making friends in any new community can be tough for adolescents, but when the move occurs half way through the school year, the challenge becomes even greater because the school social groupings for that year are already well established. Surprisingly, Jordan's first new "friend" is a senior citizen, Countess von Loewen, aka Mrs. V., who lives across the street from him. One evening, while Jordan is out sneaking a cigarette, he encounters Mrs. V. struggling to bury something in her yard. Volunteering to help, Jordan learns that the object is a quartz skull that Mrs. V. believes is cursed. Because of his act of kindness, Mrs. V. hires Jordan to tend her yard and garden, and, over time, a truly caring friendship develops between the two. Feeling he can be open and vulnerable with Mrs. V., Jordan shares that "when I was little I always wanted to be a superhero...," to which Mrs. V. replies, "You don't need super powers to be a hero...just courage." Mrs. V. shares aspects of her past with Jordan, and he learns that Mrs. V. really was a countess, her first husband, Count von Loewen, having been killed by the Nazi's during World War II. Once a very affluent woman, Mrs. V. now has but a few tangible mementoes of that wealth.

     On the adolescent social front, however, even after three months at Alex Colville Junior High School, Jordan still remains very much an isolate. Then, Cullen Thurston, "the ultimate cool guy in the school," takes an interest in Jordan, that interest first manifesting itself in the demand that Jordan supply Cullen and his buddies, Nick and Ryan, with his completed homework assignments for them to copy. Rationalizing that any attention from the school's social alpha male is better than no attention, Jordan does as they demand. Trying to impress the trio further, Jordan also brags about his relationship with Mrs. V. and tells them about the skull while, at the same time, embellishing Mrs. V.'s "wealth." The content of Jordan's bragging provides the basis for an initiation rite created by Cullen. To "prove," that he is worthy of being part of this group, Jordan must steal the skull. While recognizing that he is betraying Mrs. V.'s trust, Jordan places his loyalty to her behind his need for peer acceptance.

     Jordan, however, later faces a greater moral dilemma when Mrs. V.'s house is trashed during a break-in and her few remaining objects of value, including Mrs. V.'s treasured pearls, are stolen. Although Mrs. V. was not physically injured during the home invasion, she had to be hospitalized because of the emotional stress. While a guilt-ridden Jordan quickly confirms that Cullen's group was involved, Cullen engages in blackmail by pointing out that Jordan is very much implicated in the crime for it was he who provided the information about Mrs. V.'s valuables. Jordan, the would-be superhero, must ultimately deal with a moral conundrum. He can choose between keeping silent and continuing to betray a real friendship, or he can reveal the truth and then accept the many possible consequences that will flow from his doing so.

     Strong characterization, a quality found in Kropp's previous half dozen YA novels, is very much present in The Countess & Me. And, as in his other works, Kropp places his protagonist in a realistic situation in which the adolescent is faced with making a tough moral choice, one which has negative consequences no matter which decision is made. Middle school readers will most certainly identify with the social milieu that Kropp has created. Teachers using reading circles in LA might want to pair The Countess & Me with Paul Zindel's The Pigman for the two books share many themes.


Dave Jenkinson teaches courses in YA literature at the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba.

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

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ISSN 1201-9364