CM . . .
. Volume XI Number 1 . . . . September 3, 2004
Zee's Way by Kristin Butcher and Thunderbowl by Lesley Choyce are recent titles in Orca Soundings, the high interest, low vocabulary series from Orca Book Publishers. Both authors have additional titles in this series as well as other published works for young people.
In Butcher's novel, John Zeelander ("Zee") and his friends, Danny, Horace, Benny and Mike, are perceived to be a neighbourhood menace. Their "alternative" appearance (i.e. brightly coloured hair, studded leather, piercings and tattoos) does not earn them any friends among the adult shopkeepers, and then they accidentally smash a window while playing soccer. They have been banned from most of the stores in the shopping center and are denied a place in which to just hang out for the summer.
Zee retaliates with a series of graffiti raids on the side of the hardware store. One night, Mr. Feniuk catches Zee with spray paint in hand. Through an act of benevolent blackmail, Feniuk persuades him to paint a mural on the side of the store. To avoid the wrath of his father, Zee initially agrees but eventually comes to take the mural quite seriously, seeing it as an opportunity to get a message across to the tyrannical shopkeepers.
The story unfolds quickly and predictably with a satisfying ending where, after a heroic rescue of a missing young child, Zee and his friends are welcomed by the shopkeepers who offer the use of an empty store as a place for them to hang out. The rescue scene seems like an unnecessary addition that undermines the dominant message of the story. Zee and his friends should not have had to "prove" themselves in order to be treated equitably by the shopkeepers. Butcher does a good job illustrating their decency and maltreatment by "the establishment" without needing the extra saccharine injected by the rescue of the child.
Butcher is a skillful writer who manages, in the space of 104 pages and with a vocabulary geared to a 3.2 reading level, to render a believable main character. Details of youth culture are current but generic enough to prevent anachronistic content. Many young readers, but especially boys, will relate to the injustice of the adults' attitudes and actions towards Zee and his friends.
The content of the second novel, Thunderbowl, is aimed at older readers and will hold appeal for both male and female readers. The primary setting is a local bar called The Dungeon which is run by a tattooed tough guy named Stewy. Jeremy and his band mates, Al and Drek, beat out the regular local band, The Mongrel Dogs, in a Battle of the Bands competition. Thunderbowl is hired for a regular, Monday to Thursday night gig. They begin to build a strong local following and hear rumours of the dream of young musicians everywhere a pending visit from an interested record company scout. However, readers know from the beginning that Jeremy is only sixteen not old enough to be on the floor of the bar during sets and definitely not old enough to drink the beer that flows freely around him. After a blow-up with his parents about the band and his poor school performance, Jeremy decides to quit school for good in order to concentrate on his musical career.
Jeremy is a believable and multidimensional character - mature, thoughtful and not always predictable in his actions. One of the strengths of this slim volume is that most of the characters are multi-faceted, and all are shown to be capable of changing their attitudes and behaviour. Ultimately, Jeremy resolves the mounting trouble in his life by relying on his own good sense and reasoned judgment. Although he can play a mean guitar, he retains a bit of his geekiness, never really fitting into high school or the bar scene. Perhaps the ending is too good to be true, but the power of the story lies in the depiction of a young man making his own decisions and taking responsibility for the consequences.
Choyce also avoids using language that would date this novel too quickly references to music tend to be very general such as "rock" or "metal" terms that have variable meanings for different readers. Scenes of drunk driving, bar room fighting, mentions of pill popping and sex all suggest an older audience of readers.
Although both books are recommended as additions to the growing body of excellent high-low titles on the Orca Soundings list, I wonder at the utter absence of humour in these two stories. The young men in both novels are earnest and intense, especially when they are doing what they love painting or playing music, but they do not ever seem to have much fun.
Paulette Rothbauer is an assistant professor at the Faculty of Information Studies at the University of Toronto where she teaches courses in children's literature and youth services librarianship.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.