CM . . .
. Volume XV Number 3. . . .September 26, 2008
Lunch With Lenin and Other Stories.
Markham, ON: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2008.
169 pp., pbk., $14.95.
Teenagers-Substance use-Juvenile fiction.
Teenagers-Drug addiction-Juvenile fiction.
Short stories, Canadian (English).
Grades 8-12 / Ages 13-17.
Review by Dave Jenkinson.
They march us into dinner – some kind of vile stew on a hunk of corn bread. Guards yell at kids who try to throw food away. I drown the mess in ketchup and choke it down. We eat in silence. I keep my eyes on my plate and off the bald heads around me. I try not to think about my friends.
After supper we are marched some more. Then we run to the barracks for Confrontation.
"You are expected to rat on each other," the platoon captain says. She stands at the front of the room while all fifty of us sit stiffly on benches. No slouching is allowed.
"If you see someone doing something they shouldn't and you don't report it, you will be punished. If you are the first to tell us of a transgression, you may get a reward. A cookie with lunch. A fifteen-rest break in the middle of a work detail. Things you will come to appreciate as luxuries here at the Boot."
Immediately, a girl jumps to her feet.
"This Prisoner Chapelle wishes to state that she saw Prisoner Williams slacking off during Physical Training."
"Prisoner Williams. Front and center."
Prisoner Williams, whose first name I don't know, marches to the front of the room and spins sharply on her heels.
"Is this true?"
"Drop and do twenty-five."
I watch in fascination as girl after girl stands up to accuse other platoon members. On and on it goes. I can't believe the enthusiasm. Lots of girls snitch on each other. Now and then a guard hands out a coupon for a cookie, an extra water break or ten minutes with a newspaper.
The rewards suck. Why do they bother? It's like kindergarten – everyone eager to tattle to the teacher. (From "Boot.")
Ellis's first collection of short stories for YAs exhibits the same fine writing quality that readers have come to expect from her. As occurs in the majority of her books, Ellis addresses a social concern, this time drugs and addictions, but she does so without engaging in any preaching or making of overt value judgements. Instead, she just lets readers draw their own conclusions from the stories' happenings. The 10 character-driven stories, which range in length from 10-23 pages, feature six males and four females, ranging in age from 14-16, as central characters. While half the settings are Canadian/North American, the other locales are foreign lands: Afghanistan, Russia, the Phillippines, Mongolia and Bolivia.
The collection's opening story, "Through the Woods," is a grabber as readers find Matthew, 14 and a straight arrow student, buying something obviously illegal from the hulking captain of the school's football team. After a school day spent worrying about the package's possibly being discovered in his locker, Matthew goes to a nursing home where he rolls marijuana cigarettes for his grandmother who secretly smokes them to relieve her physical pain. Matthew keeps one for himself because he has his own pain with which to deal, but Ellis does not directly reveal what that pain is although she provides hints that readers can ponder about post-reading.
"Pretty Flowers" takes readers to Afghanistan where 12-year-old Tahmina is helping her father harvest their opium poppy crop. Once her father's family had owned pomegranate orchards, but warplanes had destroyed them and the family had sought refuge in a refugee camp in Pakistan before being repatriated to Helman Province in Afghanistan and given a small plot of land that would only support crops like opium poppies. When Afghani troops with bulldozers come and destroy the crop, Tahmina's father has only one way to settle his debt with the local merchant who had loaned him the money to plant the crop – and that is to give him Tahmina as another wife.
Though the title of "The Dark Side of Nixon" makes it sound like the story may be connected to a former US president, Nixon is actually the name of a street. Grade tenner Brandon is doubly hurt by drugs. Because of his mother's drinking while she was pregnant, Brandon has FAS and has been bullied by kids at school. When a quartet of his tormenters seemingly befriend him, Brandon neither recognizes that he is being mocked nor that he is being set up when they give him their drugs to hold when the police appear.
"Lunch with Lenin" spans 11 years and is set in Moscow. The story begins when Valerin, at age five, is abandoned by his mother at Lenin's Tomb and he ends up being sent to an orphanage where his only friend is an older boy, "Squid." At 16, as Valerin is about to be released from the orphanage, he receives an invitation from Squid to meet him in Red Square. When the two meet, Valerin finds that Squid is making a "living" by being a Lenin impersonator and having his picture taken with tourists. Valerin also discovers that Squid has a heroin addiction.
In "Boot," when Krysta Walters is caught selling ecstasy, something she was doing for her boyfriend, she is given a choice – three years in prison or six months in a military-like Boot Camp. She chooses the latter, not recognizing how tough and demanding it will be. [See the excerpt.]
"Dancing With Beads" is set in Manila where Ramon, 16 and one of the city's very poor, is selling shaboo - crystal meth – but he also has been given the opportunity to make 50,000 pesos by selling one of his kidneys to "a rich Canadian who needs a kidney."
In "Prodigal," for the last two months, from Kelly's perspective, her life and that her parents has been wonderful as her sister, Shannon, has been in a drug rehab program. However, today, the very day Kelly will participate in the 2008 Miss Firefighter Pageant in her small Ontario town, Shannon is to come home, and Keely anticipates that everything will go wrong again.
"Red Hero at Midnight" finds 14-year-old Liko to be part of a seven member band of sewer kids (so called because they live in the sewers) who make their living in Ulan Bataar, Mongolia, by stealing, including robbing tourists. One swarming goes wrong when the tourist's backpack includes a shipment of smuggled drugs intended for a corrupt police officer.
The Disneyland in "Another Night in Disneyland" is not the one in California, but rather it's a neighbourhood of Hay River, NWT, notorious for drugs and late night parties. It is there that transplanted Torontonian Laura, 14, finds herself babysitting a pair of neglected toddlers while their parents are again out partying.
Even more strongly than "Dancing With Beads," "The Cactus People" contrasts the lives of the rich and the poor. Privileged Pascal finds himself changed by his exposure to the very poor of Cochabamba, Bolivia, people of all ages who attempt to escape the misery of their lives by sniffing clefa, pots of glue.
While Ellis is obviously anti-drugs and other sources of addictions, the book's dedication, "To those who struggle to make their way," suggests a level of empathy for those whose life circumstances have unfortunately led them to addictions or to having to turn to selling drugs as the only way to survive their economic circumstances.
Dave Jenkinson, who lives in Winnipeg, MB, is CM's editor.
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