CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 4 . . . . October 13, 2006
Alberta educator, author, illustrator, and consultant Glen Huser presents his third novel for young adults featuring an unusual pair of protagonists, 15-year-old Tamara Tierney and 89-year old Jean Barclay. Tamara, recently installed in a new foster home, begins school at Edmonton's Stanley Merkin Junior High and settles into a pattern of skipping classes she "dislikes the most" by conveniently forging signatures, "a few excuses by letter," and mimicking voices, "a few by phone," to provide excuses to stay home and watch television shows which feed her fashion modeling ambitions. However, one Friday in May "after missing two Friday afternoons in a row," she shows up for class to find Miss Whipple marshalling the students for a "Seniors Project" at the Sierra Sunset Seniors' Lodge. Tamara, "buddied" with Miss Jean Barclay, who "can be a bit difficult at times" according to the director, sees a Wrinkle Queen "pushing ninety" with "dyed black hair," the "meanest eyes," and "about a million wrinkles." Jean dubs Tamara Skinnybones, "tall as a Zulu princess" wearing "a too-tight little jacket," "eye makeup that Nefertiti of Egypt would have found excessive," with magenta coloured hair. The unlikely pair develops a formidable partnership adroitly overcoming obstacles standing in the way of their goals.
The novel employs dual points of view with alternating chapters allocated to each main character. Frustrated, bored, clever and creative, Tamara and Jean conspire to achieve success. Tamara desperately wants to attend a modeling course in Vancouver, but she lacks the necessary funds; Jean longs to hear the Wagnerian Ring Cycle in Seattle, but her questionable health, not her finances, prevents her attendance. Determined to circumvent the medical people, the caregivers at the lodge, and her nephew to whom she accorded power of attorney when her health failed, Jean devises an ingenious plan whereby both might achieve satisfaction.
Initially appalled at the idea of acting as buddy to a wrinkled old woman, Tamara discovers she quite enjoys the acerbic, cigarillo-smoking, cognac-drinking former schoolteacher, and the pair forms an unlikely alliance. Jean devises the scheme outlined in the excerpt above, and Tamara carries out the "grunt work" which includes having her foster father teach her to drive. Amazingly, they make their way to Seattle and Vancouver. The preparation, manipulation, and subterfuge required to achieve their ends appeal strongly to both, and their success at escaping their confinement tempers their growing irritation with each other. Inevitably, their escapade runs into snags resulting in Jean's Vancouver hospitalization and Tamara's RCMP-escorted return to Edmonton halfway through the modeling course.
Using briskly paced prose laced with humourous dialogue, the novel presents two strong-minded, likeable protagonists albeit in an improbable scenario. The stock secondary characters are of moderate interest, but Tamara and Jean are well defined and appealing, especially in their single-mindedness and even in their deceitfulness. Huser manages not to belabour the obvious frustration felt by a senior whose body no longer cooperates with her mind nor that of a young woman whose circumstances restrict her dreams. However, the plot strains credibility at times with a novice driver negotiating the treacherous TransCanada highway through the Rockies, the clogged freeways of Seattle, and the traffic gridlock of Vancouver. When the RCMP officer chastises an unrepentant Jean, using choice descriptors like ill considered, deceit, public mischief, wrongheaded, and, in frustration at her lack of remorse, he concludes, "I wouldn't want to be the first officer in B.C. history charged with decking an old dame in a wheelchair," she calls him a flatfoot, and scoffs "What do you know of roads taken - and roads not taken?"
In a recent interview, Huser admits that "literature is life's blood to me, and I'd be hard pressed to write a book without putting some of it in there." He infuses this tale of unlikely runaways with literary references to Dickens and musical references to Wagner. Despite her misgivings, Tamara absorbs Jean's lectures, and the conspirators manage not to destroy each other or their budding friendship completely.
Winner of the 2003 Governor General's Literary Award for Children's Literature for the nove Stitches which features another unusual duo, Huser draws on his years of association with young people to craft stories focusing on current social issues. In this novel, he combines obvious themes of ageism and following one's dreams with topics like foster care, body image, the treatment of seniors and cultural differences, among others. Because many young people regard anyone over the age of 25 as ancient, electing to pair a modeling-mad teenager and a "ring head" octogenarian is a rather risky technique. Enthusiastic book talks may be needed to encourage readers because, despite the catchy title, the bland book jacket will do little to attract attention. Nevertheless, Skinnybones and the Wrinkle Queen provides its share of laughs to reward readers who persevere.
Darleen Golke writes from her home in Abbotsford, BC.
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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.