________________ CM . . . . Volume XIV Number 4 . . . . October 12, 2007



Meg Tilly.
Toronto, ON: Tundra Books, 2007.
233 pp., hardcover, $18.99.
ISBN 978-0-88776-810-1.

Grades 5-9 / Ages 10-14.

Review by Kristin Butcher.

**** /4


“Whatcha doing, Simon?” I say, even though I can see perfectly well for myself what he's doing. I'm trying to teach him how to be more sociable. He didn't get off on the right foot at school, so now the rocks-in-their-pockets kids in his class think he's a freak. An oddball.

Granted, Simon's a little unique, but there's lots of good to him. He has a heart the size of an Albertan wheatfield and would make somebody a real good friend. But kids are mean, like a pack of rabid dogs, going for the weak, the vulnerable, ripping them down. That's what's got me ragging on Simon so hard. I'm trying to toughen him up because I'm going to be in high school next year, on the other side of town, and I'm not going to be able to look out for Simon anymore. I'm scared to death about it because things haven't gotten easier for Simon on the school front. They've got harder. He's not getting beat up so much because the bully boys are scared of me, but what's going happen when I'm not there?

Kids aren't supposed to raise themselves or each other; that's what parents are for - unless, of course, your father has been killed in Afghanistan and your mother has fallen into such a deep depression that she can't even look after herself. That's when the normal sort of life you've always lived disappears forever. No more trips to the mall or outings in the park, no more family dinners, in fact, no more dinners at all. As the contents of the kitchen cupboards dwindle, the bills past due pile up. The television gets repossessed, and a few days later the furniture is gone too. You come home from school one day and notice the fridge isn't humming. Actually, nothing is because the electricity has been shut off. So it shouldn't be a surprise when your mother packs you, your sister, and your brother into the car and sets off for Alberta (from Newfoundland) to visit a great-grandmother you didn't even know you had. It shouldn't be a surprise, but it is. But by the time she up and leaves you there, you've pretty much figured out that you're on your own.

Jack (Jacqueline according to her birth certificate), the eldest of three children, has always been a pretty responsible kid, but when her mother abandons her and her siblings on their great-grandmother's ramshackle farm, she becomes as nurturing and protective as a broody hen. Though she hasn't come to terms with the situation herself, she puts on a brave face for Tessa and Simon, assuring them that everything is going to be just fine. Gran is a prickly old woman who isn't thrilled at being lumbered with three kids she only just met, but she's also a realist and quickly settles in for the long haul. At first, Jack doesn't like Gran, but it doesn't take her long to figure out that her great-grandmother is her biggest ally. Even so, things aren't rosy. Life on the farm is hard work, and Gran doesn't brook slacking. Moreover, there isn't much money, and even Gran's frugal spending isn't enough to see them through. Then there's the fellow who's pushing Gran to sell the farm, and the local retirement home that keeps sending inviting brochures enticing Gran to become a resident. If Gran gives in to these pressures, Jack, Tessa, and Simon will have nowhere to go at all. To compound matters further, there's the unresolved disappearance of the children's mother. Naturally they keep hoping she will come back for them. She does eventually come to visit, but it amounts to nothing, and Jack finally faces the reality that their mother is not going to reclaim them.

     What makes the many external conflicts of the story so compelling is the internal conflict Jack struggles with as she faces each new hurdle. She wants to be grown up for her brother's and sister's sake, but she knows she's still a kid, and sometimes her anger and resentment get the better of her, and after every explosion, she is riddled with guilt.

     Porcupine is a heart-wrenching story. (I was crying by page 4!) The characters are beautifully drawn. They all have strengths and flaws, just like real people, and as a result, the reader's heart bleeds for them all. For this reader, the ending was the icing on the cake. As the pages disappeared, I couldn't help but wonder how the story was going to end, but I must say I was pleasantly surprised and pleased. I closed the book with a wonderful feeling of peace.

     Meg Tilly, well-known actress of such movies as Agnes of God and The Big Chill, already has two well-received adult novels to her credit. She is not a Hollywood star using her fame to get published; she is a talented writer who has only recently begun sharing her stories. The press release from the publisher sets the target audience for the novel between 10 and 14 years of age. I won't quibble. My only concern is that the smattering of obscenities in the text might make some librarians reluctant to stock the book. That would be a great shame. As used in the story, the swear words don't even jump out. This is an amazing book.

Highly Recommended.

Campbell River, BC, writer, Kristin Butcher wishes she had written this novel.

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

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