CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 6 . . . . November 10, 2006
Alison Acheson’s newest novel for teens is a work of brilliance, most closely resembling the work of Canadian YA icon Martha Brooks, yet with an understated genius all its own. In Mud Girl, protagonist Aba Zytka Jones—Abi—spends her sixteenth summer contemplating life’s biggest questions. Abi lives in a vividly rendered shack-like house perched on the banks of the Fraser River in Delta, British Columbia. The building’s dilapidation and precarious hold on the bank mirrors her father’s tenuous hold on his mental health; his depression began after Abi’s mother left the previous year, and it leaves Abi a virtual orphan. During the school year, she traversed a narrow, subsistent existence, but this summer she actively seeks out meaningful relationships and a job, although she still faces the same emptiness in her home life.
Abi asks herself a lot of questions about her mother’s decision to leave the family, but she doesn’t come up with many answers. Her searching, however, enables the emotionally emaciated girl to make productive connections with several new people who come into her life. Each quirky and delightfully believable, the secondary characters in Mud Girl add an impressive depth to the novel. Abi finds surrogate relatives (father and mother? uncle and aunt?) in Horace the kindly bus driver and “Ernestine,” the Big Sister volunteer. Amanda, a more helpful and responsive “big sister” than Ernestine, gives Abi a job and some valuable perspective on life and relationships, both familial and romantic. Jude, the lost and self-centered boy who becomes Abi’s boyfriend, is her foil, and their faltering romance allows Abi to learn to trust her own judgment and intuition. Jude’s mother, Lily, and his son, Dyl, also enable Abi to grow, and she repays the chance they give her a thousandfold. By the end of the novel, Abi has grown from a confused, frightened child to a much more decisive young woman who is aware of the realities of both her limitations and power.
Every element of Mud Girl is just right. The characters are round and realistic, the plot compels page-turning, the setting symbolically mirrors the theme, and the resolution is satisfying. Particularly impressive is Acheson’s use of language. Every sentence is understated yet filled with a full depth of meaning while the diction is gratifying for its warm poetic rhythm. Mud Girl’s best quality, though, is its tone. Acheson manages to strike the almost impossible balance between hope for Abi’s future and the true direness of her current situation. That this is done without the least hint of heavy handed didacticism is even more striking.
In a genre crowded with depressing mediocrity, Acheson has defied the norm by producing a work of high artistic quality that is also fully accessible to young adult readers. It is a pleasure not to be burdened with another cookie cutter slick teen throwaway story. Mud Girl is a compelling novel—easily the best YA book of the year. It deserves to be in the hands of every teenager in Canada.
Michelle Superle teaches Children’s Literature and Composition at the University College of the Fraser Valley.
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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.