CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 8. . . .October 22, 2010.
Toronto, ON: Tundra Books, 2010.
192 pp., pbk., $11.99.
Grades 7-10 / Ages 12-15.
Review Chris Laurie.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy
"My dad?" Gwen looks startled. Her face goes pale. "What are you trying to say?"
"Percy wanted to see where it happened, so he could feel closer to your dad. Because he misses him. And worries about him."
As I say these words, I realize something. In all the time I've been around since the fire, I haven't once heard Gwen mention her dad. Talk to him on the phone. Ask a question about him.
I add, "Which is more than I can say for you."
"I thought you cared about him."
"Well, you're sure not acting like it. For God's sake, Gwen, he's suffering."
"I know!" A wail.
"For all you know, he could be dying in Vancouver -"
I'm not prepared for Gwen's reaction. She jerks as if she's been shot. She sways, clutching her cane for balance. A look of terror comes over her face. "Don't say that!" she screams. Then again, quieter, pleading, her voice breaking, "Don't say that."
My mind starts jumping around. Gwen's dad. His injuries. Her injury. Gwen on the mountain, kneeling at the avalanche site, screaming. The way she's gripping the cane. This terrified look on her face.
Somehow I know there's more to this. I don't know what. It's not even a clear thought, just a feeling, a knowing, in my gut.
I jump to my feet, seize Gwen by the arm. "Something happened up there, Gwen. What was it?"
Best friends since childhood, 13-year-old Gwen and 14-year-old Molly have become increasingly distanced from one another. Slightly older Molly has started partying with a crowd of older teens, and Gwen has been increasingly drawn into the world of dance.
A once in a lifetime opportunity has presented itself to Gwen - an expensive, three-week summer dance workshop at the University of British Columbia. Only the best will be chosen to audition in a few weeks time. Gwen knows her mom will tell her they can't afford it, but when her dad suggests the two of them go skiing, Gwen takes the opportunity to ask him for permission.
Immediately following an argument between Gwen and her father over the cost of the dance workshop, a freak avalanche severely injures Gwen's dad and causes Gwen to lose the use of her right leg. Meanwhile, Molly and the teens are partying in an out-building behind Gwen's parents' house. Their bonfire catches hold of the structure and quickly gets out of hand, burning it to the ground. The gang flees, leaving only Molly to be caught by the police. Her punishment is community service at the discretion of Gwen's parents.
While Gwen's younger brother, Percy, is thrilled to see Molly around the house again, Gwen is mortified that her former friend will be hanging around, preferring instead, to draw inwards as the mysterious pain in her leg lingers. As the two find it increasingly difficult to avoid each other, each reflects on how her treatment of the other in recent months has brought them to this point.
When Molly returns to school and encounters the teens she thought were her friends, they snub her, sending her on an alcohol-fueled bender. Drunk and terribly depressed, Molly shows up at Gwen's house hoping to talk, only to discover that Gwen is out, leaving Percy home to answer the door. Molly decides she and Percy will climb the mountain to the site of the avalanche to see for themselves what happened. In the dark, they find themselves completely lost, and when Gwen arrives home, she realizes where they have gone and races to catch them.
While successful author Ellen Schwartz's latest novel, Avalanche Dance, reads as a suspense-thriller, it is also a compelling character study of two teenagers whose lives are destined to intertwine. The novel's narratives alternate between the two characters from one chapter to the next. Additionally, the narrative purposefully switches between a first-person view for Molly, and a third-person view for Gwen. This approach allows the reader to gain further insight into Molly's thoughts and behaviours than would otherwise be the case, while allowing Gwen's narrative to unfold slowly. The result is a critical building of suspense at the novel's finalé, when Gwen finally opens up to Molly, revealing the secret she has kept inside since the accident. As the girls struggle to understand themselves and each other, they begin rebuilding their relationship.
Avalanche Dance is a fun read for young teens, with a fast-moving and fairly believable plot (like many YA novels, parents are largely absent, leaving the children to their own devices), and with dialogue that rings true. Many readers will identify with either Gwen or Molly, both of whom are superbly written characters.
Chris Laurie is an Outreach Librarian at the Winnipeg Public Library.
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