________________ CM . . . . Volume XIII Number 9 . . . . December 22, 2006



William Bell.
Markham, ON: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1986/2006.
192 pp., pbk., $12.95.
ISBN 1-55005-051-6.
Subject Headings:
Canoes and canoeing-Fiction.
Coming of age-Fiction.
Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up.
Review by Thom Knutson. 

*** ½ /4 


So picture this. There was Father Crabbe, wealthy corporate lawyer, dressed formally in a dark suit at one end of our six-foot oak table; there was the thin Worried Mother placed at the centre of one side, dressed in a burgundy pant suit with a hint of jewelry and her hair dyed a kind of blondish color; and opposite Dad was My Son the Problem, dressed in a black T-shirt and jeans, a little smashed (for this pow-wow I needed help), trying to read Father’s mood through the groping brass arms of that stupid contraption waiting for the other shoe to drop.  

All the ingredients for a third-rate soap opera.  

Once dessert was served, we were all ready to begin the scene that we knew had been written for us by eighteen years of life together. I don’t want to record everything that was said. It isn’t necessary. My mother got hysterical, wept, clutched her napkin in her hands, criticized my ingratitude and laid out the inventory of how lucky I was and all they’d done for me. My father took the other line, lecturing me in what he thought was a reasonable voice about how I should use my God-Given Talents to make something of myself – which means getting money in large quantities – on and on. I, as usual, attacked their entire way of life, their snobbery and materialism, saying I couldn’t be grateful for a way of life I found meaningless and contemptible – and other cruel and pointless things.

All this began with a question from my father: “I thought I told you if you were ever caught drinking again…” and I swear he had his third brandy in his hand when he said it. If only we could have broken the pattern we’d lived in so long. If only someone had written a new score. But there we were, playing the same piece, out of tune, out of sync, the only one we ever played, the only one we knew.  

At the end we left the table. They went their way, I went mine. Their way was another party.  

Those three conversations – with Grant, Frazer and my parents – were the omens that told me tonight was the night to go. I was as ready as I’d ever be, I thought. So I began to prepare for my escape, a little depressed, a little scared, and a little under the care of Silent Sam. 

Franklin Crabbe has reached a crossroad in his privileged 18-year-old life. Disillusioned by his parents’ material desires and empty affections, Crabbe (as he prefers to be called) decides it’s time to disappear from a world of hypocritical adults where he has no responsibilities, no worries, and, worst of all, no sense of self-determination  Over several months, Crabbe stockpiles enough provisions to sustain himself in the bush for an extended period. One evening, after his parents return home from another party, Crabbe quietly loads one of the family cars with the canoe and several large packs and vanishes into the night. He heads north to a river he once visited with his father on their only camping trip together. With virtually no boating or survival skills, Crabbe is soon plunged over a large waterfall that would have been the end of him had he not been rescued by Mary. Through her, Crabbe comes to learn many things about himself and his place in the world and about this mysterious woman who has also run away to the forest. 

     From his mental spars with a hospital psychologist to his conversations with teachers, Crabbe is self-assured and almost cocky when interacting with adults. He sees his escape as freedom, although he doesn’t quite know what that means for him (“Strange how that word soon took on new and unexpected meaning.”) As he journeys deeper into the natural world, so too does he penetrate further into himself, beyond the protective façade of alcohol and attitude. What is revealed is a lonely, insecure young man who is uncertain what the future holds. 

    "Layer by layer I was being stripped away: the ordeal with the bear; the waterfall; my breaking down tonight and admitting what I never before admitted to anyone, including myself. What would happen, I wondered, when the last layer was peeled off? What would be left?"

          It’s been 20 years since William Bell brought Franklin Crabbe to the world of Young Adult literature, and yet, Crabbe’s story, largely set in the timeless Canadian wilderness, is still an authentic tale of self-discovery and coming-of-age that will resonate with older teens. As in other works from this genre, such as Harry Mazer’s Snowbound, nature is the equalizing force that pares the individual down to the soul before beginning the rebuilding, and in some cases, the healing process. As Crabbe eventually realizes, “you work with the environment, not against it.” 

     Despite a couple of abrupt scene transitions, the emphasis on dramatic action makes Crabbe a good choice both for read-aloud and for teens with an interest in survival stories.


Thom Knutson is the Youth Services Coordinator at Saskatoon Public Library in Saskatoon, SK. 

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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ISSN 1201-9364
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