CM . . .
. Volume XII Number 15 . . . . March 31, 2006
So begins the first "Sarah Martin Mystery." The author, a teacher-consultant, knows that girls in their early teens like horses, slumber parties and boys. They are concerned about the environment, they compete with other girls, want their own way, and enjoy solving puzzles and problems. Pattison has assembled all the right ingredients for a juvenile mystery.
It takes Sarah, and the reader, a while to get to that barn. On the school bus, Sarah learns that Colin Braemarie is Mindi's mother's boyfriend. Mindi and her mother don't live at the farm, but her mother, an artist, likes to spend time there for the atmosphere. Sarah's pleasure at being invited to the farm to see the horses is short-lived, for at dinner time that evening, her father forbids her to go until he gets to know Colin Braemarie. His reason: an unknown man entertaining two young girls can be a recipe for trouble.
Snooping, Sarah finds her father's file on Colin Braemarie, but Roy intercepts her and closes their dad's briefcase before she can read it. Later, she bikes to the farm and observes Colin with two men in dark suits, but Roy comes after her before she learns anything about the nature of Colin's business. Her suspicions intensify when Mindi withdraws the invitation to the farm because Colin feels too busy to have her friends around.
Mindi, singularly uninquisitive, has never explored the old barn, which supposedly contains antique farm machinery, but she wonders if Colin is doing something illegal. Sarah visits the farm, without her parents' permission when Colin is absent and when Sarah's mother is there. Soon, the girls are eavesdropping on another of Colin's meetings with his associates, Mr Cheng and Mr. Marchan. They speak of "pharmaceutical companies willing to pay excellent money for what he has."
Those who have seen singer Tom Cochrane's TV commercials which deplore the torture of bears for Asian medical purposes will guess what's up. When Sarah gets locked in the barn, she finds eleven bears in cages. With Mindi's help, she escapes through a rotting part of the barn wall, but not before she has felt hot ursine breath and heard their snorting too close for comfort. The bears are the most fascinating and compelling element in the novel. Instead of Bluebeard's dead wives in the attic, we have Braemarie's bears in the barn. I wanted them to feature in more scenes and hoped that one would fight for its own survival and would escape and run amok like the patriarch gorilla in Greystoke.
Safely home, Sarah learns from the Internet that bear bile is used in a variety of medicines to treat everything from cancer to tooth decay, and, although there are synthetic and herbal alternatives, many prefer the genuine article. Bear paws are used for soup, bear claws for ornamentation.
In the face of this enormous discovery, do the girls rush to tell Sarah's dad? No, they have a slumber party instead. When Sarah explains what is involved in the "harvesting" of bears, Mindi's reaction is purely subjective: "My mom really likes this guy [Colin]. I like him too. This is going to ruin everything."
Sarah is brave in some ways, timid in others. She is so afraid of her father's anger for disobeying him by going to Colin's farm that she searches for other means to save the bears. The girls concoct a phoney research project on "the black bear" and meet with a school friend's conservation officer father. He gives them pamphlets and informs them of the penalties for poaching but adds, "It can be a nasty, dangerous business and no one really wants to hear about that. Besides, you don't want to have to read about the terrible things people do to bears."
Back in the bear barn, the girls, hiding, observe Colin treating the animals kindly as he feeds them. Soon, however, they overhear him phoning his associates and saying that he'll deliver five live bears to them at dawn on Saturday. The girls discover a hidden room and a freezer which contains bears' paws and gallbladders. They're on the verge of telling Sarah's father, but, when they find him groaning over youth delinquency cases, timidity overcomes them yet again. They bring Roy into the act, phone Crime Stoppers and report their suspicions anonymously.
The showdown comes unexpectedly on Friday night. The villains in dark suits arrive early with a transport truck. Much action follows. Mindi, Roy and Colin are locked in an empty bear cage. Luckily, Mindi and Roy have gotten word to Roy and Sarah's dad who arrives with backup. Colin turns out to be an Environment Intelligence Officer running a mock "bear farm' to catch the international bear bile ring. The conservation officer turns out to be in cahoots with the criminals; Sarah plays a key role in his capture.
Needless to say, Sarah's father is upset over her involvement in the case and requires her to write a complete report of everything, the "Whole, Entire, Complete Truth" - hence the novel. This narrative device was made famous by Sue Grafton in her Kinsey Milhone alphabet novels - the book is the detective's report. Having introduced the device, Pattison won't leave it alone. Instead of letting the reader be caught up in the story, the narrator, Sarah, keeps interrupting the flow, by commenting on events, flashing ahead and rhetorically addressing her brother, Roy, and her dad.
Her intrusions on her own narrative disturb the fictional dream.
Readers expect that, in a mystery, the rip in the social fabric caused by the crime will be mended in the end. In this novel, not only are the criminals brought to justice, but Mindi's father-figure, Colin, turns out to be one of the heroes, not one of the villains. The adventure also opens up communication and understanding between Sarah and her father.
Father-daughter bonds are very important in this story. Sarah's brother Roy also plays a paternal role in her life by trying to supervise her comings and goings and coming to her rescue. The mothers are minor characters who hardly appear and have no authority or influence. Presumably, Mindi's mother did not know Colin's real job or the true purpose of his farm as it would hardly be responsible parenting to have one's child hanging around a locale set up to catch criminals.
Muskoka is renowned for its fall colours. City slickers from places like Mississauga take bus tours to "the boonies" to see the glorious maple forests. Though this novel takes place in autumn, the setting is underused, even as backdrop. The action could be transplanted to any locale where there are black bears and old barns.
While more could be made of the material in The Whole, Entire, Complete Truth, the novel will certainly develop reading skills and entertain pre-teen and early teenage readers.
Ruth Latta is working on another mystery novel in the series which includes Tea with Delilah and The Secret of White Birch Road (Baico, Gatineau, 2004 and 2005)
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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.