CM . . .
. Volume XX Number 34. . . .May 2, 2014
After getting caught tagging yet again, Tessa McPhail is expelled from her Montreal high school and ends up at a small, run-down alternative school. To Tessa’s dismay, the school day for the grade elevens at New Directions is divided in half, with regular school classes followed by boxing training. Since getting caught in a violent hockey riot years earlier, Tessa has had panic attacks whenever she witnesses fights. How is she going to survive at a school designed to turn her into a boxer?
Monique Polak, the author of more than a dozen novels for teen readers, took boxing lessons while writing Straight Punch, and it’s clear that she learned more from them than just technique. Her passion for the sport--and what it can do for people, particularly those who have problems to work out--comes through in her vivid description of the training and sparring at the school. She places the reader right in the ring with the students and their gruff but caring coach, Big Ron Although the novel’s description is spot-on, some of the characters’ dialogue sounds a bit inauthentic. Polak definitely has the setting just right, though: the city of Montreal takes on the prominence of another character in Straight Punch. Tessa’s new school is located in a rough area of Montreal North, there are several scenes set in Chinatown, and there are many other landmarks and neighbourhoods to be explored in between.
The plot functions in much the same way: it’s an expansive tour that alights in several places without seeming too scattered. A secondary storyline involving a neighbourhood campaign to shut down New Directions helps cement Tessa’s attachment to her new school as she takes on a central role in defending its place in the community. Tessa grows in other ways as well. As she adjusts to life at New Directions, it’s clear that Tessa must deal with her past before she can fully embrace her future. When her teacher’s journal-writing prompt takes Tessa back to when she was 11-eleven-years old, the reader learns more about the incident that triggered her aversion to violence:
This flashback is just one of the ways in which Polak develops the prominent theme of violence. Through learning to box, Tessa overcomes her anxiety about fighting. Like tagging, boxing becomes an outlet that can make her feel “like an artist and a rebel at the same time”, but, unlike tagging, boxing is legal. Polak has a deft hand with the topic of violence, allowing it to evolve and shift over the course of the novel as she also does with Tessa’s relationship with her boyfriend. Their relationship is complicated and, consequently, realistic. Jealousy, prejudice, and violence are all issues that arise between them, and Polak is careful to not provide any easy answers.
The real stars of this novel may be the secondary characters who are multi-dimensional and engaging; each has his or her own unique story, instead of just being variations on the standard “tough kid” mold. We learn their stories as Tessa does: over time. One of the most engaging aspects of the novel is the way in which Polak allows these stories to unfold, saving key details for just the right moment. Many characters are not what they appear to be at first, which, in itself, is a valuable message. Jasmine’s story could be developed into its own novel. A gay character’s habit of donning a feather boa seems somewhat clichéd, but otherwise he is, like the other characters, well-developed, and is a good fit in Tessa’s expanding circle of friends.
I would love to use Straight Punch as a core novel for grade 9 or 10 applied-level English classes because I can picture students getting really engaged with the novel and its dynamic cast of characters. The novel’s themes--including teen pregnancy, juvenile crime, and multi-generational alcoholism--allow for an impressive scope of classroom discussion. Reluctant readers have few barriers to overcome with this book: the pace is quick, and the use of flashback is effective rather than confusing.
I will definitely recommend Straight Punch to colleagues who teach at an alternative school. Due to its strong sense of place, this novel would also be a brilliant addition to school libraries and English classrooms in Montreal. And as soon as I can, I plan on putting this book in the hands of one particular student: a tough, smart girl I taught in an English class two years ago and who is now at the nearby alt school. She found boxing and mixed martial arts on her own and made them her raison d’etre. I have a feeling she and Tessa are going to be good friends.
Gillian Lapenskie is a teacher-librarian at Barrie Central Collegiate in Barrie, ON.
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