________________ CM . . . . Volume XIV Number 5 . . . . October 26, 2007


Responsible. (Orca Soundings).

Darlene Ryan.
Victoria, BC: Orca, 2007.
100 pp., pbk. & hc., $9.95 (pbk.), $16.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-55143-685-2 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-55143-687-6 (hc.).

Grades 7 and up / Ages 12 and up.

Review by Ruth Latta.

**** /4


Nick ran his finger across Erin's throat. Something in the way he was touching her, playing with her, reminded me of George [the cat] playing with a bird he'd caught one time... I swear he had the same smug grin I could see on Nick's face... I can't let Nick do this, I thought.

     Kevin Frasier, the narrator and central character of Responsible, is the "new boy" in his high school and has fallen in with a bad crowd led by a bully, Nick. Although Kevin says, "It just sort of happened," readers know from passages like the one above that Nick recruited him, playing on his vulnerability and hope of fitting in.

     Kevin has no status in the community, and, in the beginning, no support system. Because his single father, a jack of all trades who lacks "paper" qualifications, can never find a permanent job, they move frequently. Sometimes his dad goes out at night to drink and play guitar, leaving Kevin on his own in their trailer.

     Nick, the head of the gang, is devoting all his energy to harassing a classmate, Erin, because she refused to go out with him. He demands Kevin's help in his relentless campaign to make her life miserable. From pushing, name-calling, and a dead mouse incident, the bullying escalates into a plot to take her into the bush and shave her head. At this point, Kevin tries to talk to his father about being caught in Nick's web, only to hear: "Can't you find someone else in the school other than those punks to be friends with?...Keep away from them."

     But it isn't that simple, as Kevin, the readers, and the author know. Fredericton writer Darlene Ryan has created a gem of social realism within the rules of the “Orca Soundings” series (high interest, simple vocabulary). Her ear for dialogue and her selection of detail make her characters fully rounded. Through direct speech we perceive, for instance, that the principal is being wilfully obtuse about the magnitude of the bullying. We see, too, that, Kevin's father is neither uncaring nor negligent, just overwhelmed by circumstances. His best characteristic is his integrity, revealed when he turns over $3,000 of found money to the police, in spite of his desperate need for a cash transfusion. Later, in a crisis, he enlists the help of the trailer park manager to support Kevin.

     Erin, who is a credit to her gender, stands up for herself in the face of Nick's tormenting and the principal's negligence. In a dramatic climax, Kevin comes to the bush and takes her side against her abusers. Nick and his henchmen beat up on both of them, but flee at the sound of sirens. Though the police are headed elsewhere, the reprieve enables Kevin to lead Erin out of the woods to seek medical help.

     In a shallower novel, Erin would melt with gratitude into Kevin's arms, but Responsible is too realistic for that. When he visits her, expecting to be thanked, he is unpleasantly surprised.

"One time you do the right thing," she tells him. "Do you think this makes up for all the times you were one of them?... Well, guess what? I don't want to be your friend... You're still a jerk."

     No good deed goes unpunished. When Kevin returns to school, Nick's friends (or, more accurately, those under his thumb) call him a snitch and tell him he should stay out of things that aren't his business. Ms. Ryan is sophisticated in her awareness of male supremacist attitudes, small town hierarchies and the capacity of a bully to intimidate.

     In Responsible, which follows the plot pattern of "the hero's journey," Ms. Ryan conveys the sad truth that doing the right thing may bring no reward other than a clear conscience. On the final page, however, we find Kevin and Erin in a new school, off to a fresh start.

     Ryan has taken a much-discussed issue, teen bullying, and has "made it  new" - an achievement to which all novelists aspire.

Highly Recommended.

Ruth Latta's most recent novel, Memories Stick, a mystery for grownups, was published in 2007 by Baico Publishing of Ottawa.

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

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