CM . . .
. Volume XVI Number 1 . . . . September 4, 2009
Josh, who is almost 13, is keeping a journal upon the recommendation of a psychiatrist, Dr. Tierney, who is counselling him, his dad and his little brother, following the death of the boys' mother. A university professor, she was on her way to her office when she found a snake in her car, panicked, crashed into a tree and died.
Author Catherine Austen made an inspired choice in choosing the journal as a narrative device. The act of writing requires one to express thought processes and emotions with some clarity and order. Any other form of first person narration by a child in the throes of grief would make for an incoherent story. Yet, at the same time, Austen conveys Josh's inner turmoil by having him confess to exploding on several occasions, twice at an aunt who was trying to help out, and once at his father - an outburst that seems long overdue.
Josh's father, who makes computer maps for a government department, is, in Dr. Tierney's words, "emotionally absent" and stuck at the "denial" stage of grief. While Dad spends his time in the basement, studying time travel, Josh does laundry and sees that his four-year-old brother, Sammy, eats and bathes. On one rare occasion when Dad drives Josh to a soccer practice, he reads a book and lets Sammy wander away into a cow pasture.
Josh worries about Sammy's many fears and peculiar ideas. He walks backward in order to see people when he leaves them so that if they die he'll remember their faces. He "journals" by drawing fanged snakes and humanoid cars being struck by malevolent trees. He still hopes that his mother will come back, he sometimes talks aloud to her, and he cannot be separated from his girl Power Ranger toy.
"It would be nice if Dad came out of his basement once in a while and took us out to eat," writes Josh. "We may be grieving but we still have basic needs." Summertime adds to Josh's isolation. His girlfriend, Karen, is off at camp and has distanced herself from his grief, writing a few stilted letters. Sometimes Josh escapes the strain of too much emotion by focusing on the mourning customs of various religions. Other times, he wonders who put the snake in the car. His mother's snake phobia, not widely known outside the family, was so intense that she couldn't bear even to sit near a picture of one. The police questioned Josh and Sammy as to whether their parents had fought before she set off for work that fatal Saturday morning. In a flight of speculation, Josh wonders if his father put the snake in the car because he didn't want to have to "babysit.... That's what he called it when he looked after us - babysitting."
The reader roots for Josh because of his creative ideas for coping and survival. Since Sammy will never have the almost-thirteen years of memories that he has, he decides to involve his younger brother in making a scrapbook about their mother. The project unexpectedly helps Sammy connect with a neighboring family with a child his age and be accepted onto a young children's soccer team. While gathering tributes from his mother's colleagues, friends and neighbours, Josh quietly investigates her death.
Josh's sense of humour, which lightens the somber subject matter of this novel, comes to light throughout the book. For instance, the neighbour who coaches young children's soccer says he hopes the team will welcome Sammy. "I don't think there'll be a problem," Josh writes. "I've seen five year olds play soccer. Half of them look for worms in the dirt and the other half do headstands. They won't even notice Sammy joining the team. They'll probably think he played all season."
The author shows the healing effects of time and the kindness of strangers. Starting kindergarten is good for Sammy as his teacher, Mme Denis, becomes a mother-figure. She tells him it's dangerous to walk backwards and suggests that a memento is a safer way of remembering. "She'll have him normal by Christmas," Josh says.
In the end, the snake-prankster confesses. Several cathartic outbursts by two of the characters lead to a sense of closure. It would be unrealistic to have a happy ending.
While professionals may find this novel useful as bibliotherapy, Walking Backward is much more than a therapeutic tool. With its well-drawn characters and depth of understanding, this work of children's literature should withstand the test of time.
Ruth Latta is working on Spelling Bee, a novel for grownups, and hopes it will be published in 2009.
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