CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 22 . . . . June 22, 2007
Fourteen-year-old Sam Connor sums up what it has been like growing up without a father figure. After his dad's death, his paternal grandfather, Max Connor, walked away from the graveyard and never contacted Sam or his mother.
Imagine Sam's surprise, when, after school, he finds a letter from Grandpa Max, asking for forgiveness and a second chance to be part of his life. Max explains that he was overwhelmed because of losing both his wife and son within a six month period. Now he regrets abandoning what was left of his family. In his letter, he asks Sam to go to a café where Joe, the cook, is keeping a gift for him.
Sam's mother advises her son to take this opportunity for reconciliation, and so the young hero begins his quest. Perhaps the author contrived an absentee grandfather because an absent father is so commonplace. Forgiving a deserting father might be too much for some young readers to consider, but a deserting grandfather as a key character allows some distance.
The author tinges the plot with magic by using the "rule of three" so popular in folk and fairytales. Sam meets with three of his grandfather's friends, each of whom gives him another letter, some wisdom and a gift with symbolic overtones. Symbols abound in Rebel's Tag, perhaps to add to the mythic tone. The first gift is a handcrafted baby cradle which has rocked several generations of Connors and which has a secret compartment. The next is a watch. Max writes that the gifts represent love and time, both of which he regrets not having given Sam. Since the watch does not work, the third gift is the opportunity to have it repaired, an encounter which also provides, to some extent, repair of the relationship, or, at least, closure.
Max shares a Sumerian proverb in each letter, yet says nothing about his background, life's work or interests. Nor does Sam's mother provide any clues as to her father-in-law's lifestyle or past. Max's nuggets of wisdom, his varied friends (a cook, a Chinese philosopher and a jeweller) and his tobacco odour are intriguing, but don't add up to a rounded character. We are repeatedly told that he is a rebel, but in what sense? The author's decision to keep Max nebulous, forever "off stage," makes Sam's dilemma about forgiveness too contrived. How hard is it to forgive someone who hardly exists except as letters and a memory?
In devising a novel on the theme of forgiveness, the author could have omitted the grandfather entirely and focused on Sam's need to forgive his father for dying. A parent's death stirs up many conflicting feelings, including anger.
Astrology adds to the symbol overload when we learn that Sam is born under Uranus, "the cosmic trickster." This sign is a further connection to his grandfather, the "rebel" who has devised this game of "tag" or "treasure hunt." Max writes, "All free spirits like Uranus and it puts its mark on us." Uranus comes into play when Sam and his friend, Indira, go "roofing", that is, climbing on roofs to enjoy the night sky and solitude. There Sam feels free, and Indira has a "Deva experience" of being "among spirits and angels." When Sam decides to spray-paint a tiny red Uranus symbol on all the roofs they visit, his first attempt goes messily wrong but leads him to two perfect grandparent figures - who forgive him his prank. This section seemed farfetched, but perhaps the author was avoiding writing of other activities popular among teens in their search for escape and transcendence. Indeed, the old song, “Up on the Roof,” and the novel, The Cider House Rules, equate roof-top sitting with liberation.
"I find out that forgiveness feels like being on a roof. Like freedom," says Sam. Some readers will find Rebel's Tag inspirational or mystical; this reader found it too contrived.
Ruth Latta's fourth mystery novel for grown-ups, with the working title “Memories Stick,” has been accepted by Baico Publishing of Ottawa.
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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.