________________ CM . . . . Volume XIV Number 22 . . . . June 27, 2008

cover

Dear Sylvia.

Alan Cumyn.
Toronto, ON: Groundwood/House of Anansi, 2004.
181 pp., pbk. & hc., $12.99 (pbk.), $16.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-0-88899-848-4 (pbk.), ISBN 978-0-88899-847-7.

Grades 4-6 / Ages 9-11.

Review by Lindsay Schluter.

**** /4

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.

excerpt:

Dear Sylvia,

Last night Fillus was sick with a raging fever and I had to walk her up and down up and down. No one else could do it. When Uncle Lorne took her he carried her like a car battery he might drop. Then Ant Lorraine grabbed her like a bag of groceries in a brown paper bag that yowelled and shrieked so loud that Eleanor said – all babies should be sent to reform school!

And Sadie said – give her to Owen!

So Eleanor almost threw Fillus into my arms like Andy sometimes throws a football too hard just to show you.

But I caught her all right. Her skin felt like the burner had been left on inside.

She yowelled and yowelled. We did the Paw Debask. Forwards and back. I hummed some bagpipes and so did Sadie and I travel stepped and kept dancing her.

She kept yowelling and shrieking but like a train going by which doesn't last.

Sadie said – she likes your shoulder and the way you giggle her. Fillus started to fall into exhaustion then and I tried to hand her over to Sadie to show her how to giggle a baby but she cried again so I had to do it all over.

Maybe Fillus will be a great Scottish dancer because of these lessons.

Your friend,
Owen

 

Critically acclaimed author Alan Cumyn is on a roll. Back in 2002, he introduced us to the hilarious Secret Life of Owen Skye; in 2004, he kept us laughing with After Sylvia; and now, in 2008 he has done it again with Dear Sylvia, the third, and perhaps most side-splitting book in the Owen Skye trilogy.

     At the end of the second novel, Owen is left feeling heart-broken and distraught after his one and only true love, Sylvia, moves to (what feels like) the other side of the planet. Sylvia leaves Owen with a stack of paper and an armful of stamped envelopes with the hopes that he might write to her – and indeed, this is exactly what Owen does…..or at least intends to do in Dear Sylvia.

     Comprised entirely of letters, Cumyn's latest novel is told in Owen's own voice – a departure from the omniscient narration of the previous two installments. From this intimate perspective, Owen's charming personality leaps off the page, and, as readers encounter Owen's description of "arty chokes" and "1 ton soup," they will find it hard to resist laughing out loud.

     Owen's writing is somewhat stream-of-consciousness, yet the novel does hold on to a distinct narrative arc that centers on Owen's father who quits his job as an insurance salesman in order to become an author. Owen pours his heart out to Sylvia, confessing to her that, without their father's salary, his family is now "poor." Although Owen comes to this exaggerated conclusion after being forced to eat porridge for breakfast – a meal that he associates with the poverty-stricken orphan Oliver Twist.

     Complementary to such lighthearted confessions is Owen's sincere concern about the "windstorm" arguments that his parents seem to find themselves in. On one occasion, Owen, after discovering that his father has spent the night on the chesterfield, poses the question, "Do your parents sometimes confuse you?"

     At the outset, Owen fully intends to send Sylvia the letters that he has written her, but to his own bewilderment, he cannot bring himself to visit a mailbox. His initial excuse is one of helplessness, arguing that he has simply run out of envelopes and can't afford to buy any more. Later, Owen admits that he is afraid of looking like a fool, having made so many spelling mistakes (most notably, the word "deer" at the beginning of almost all of his letters), but it is his final confession that ultimately rings true: Owen feels somewhat exposed and vulnerable, having at times let his innermost feelings spill onto the page.

     But, to the reader's delight, it is this raw emotion that is most striking about Owen's letters. He is a writer at heart, and, although he may be weighed down by the conventions of the written language, he quickly blossoms as a creative and poignant storyteller. With his trusty "dikshionarry" by his side, he compares the beauty of Sylvia's hair to a "field of sunny corn" and describes the experience of gazing at her from across the room like watching a still and silent deer in the morning mist. Like a tin of silly snakes, Owen's originality simply cannot be contained, and as he describes his father's furious typing (CLACKclackCLACKclack) and his mother's serious sewing ("brinyin-brinyin-brinyin-brin"), it becomes apparent that Owen is but a young James Joyce or T.S. Eliot.

     Readers who have not yet picked up the first two books in the series will get along just fine – although as a stand alone novel, Dear Sylvia does not provide a great deal of character description beyond that of Owen himself. Logically, Owen does not take the time to tell Sylvia that "Sylvester" is indeed the family dog or that "Andy" is his brother – but Cumyn rightly assumes that readers will be able to pick up on the many give-away clues that he does provide, all the while enticing Owen-Syke-Newbies to learn more about these characters by reading the previous books.

     One detail that may just fly over the heads of Cumyn's youngest readers, however, is the fact that the book takes place (presumably) in the 1950s. This contextual element is subtly revealed in the shocked and astonished responses to Mrs. Skye's decision to get a job. Young readers may eventually pick up on the time setting after inevitably asking the question: "Why doesn't Owen just e-mail Sylvia?"

     But alas, does it really matter where or when Owen Skye actually exists? To be sure, Owen is a child that child-readers will find irresistibly authentic. And although you will have to read the book, yourself, to find out whether or not Sylvia actually receives Owen's letters, I guarantee you that once you've read to the very last page, you will wish that there were more than just a trio of books to the Owen Skye trilogy.

Highly Recommended.

Lindsay Schluter is a recent graduate from the Library and Information Studies program at the University of British Columbia.

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

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.

Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.
 

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