________________ CM . . . . Volume 21 Number 20 . . . . January 30, 2015


The Truth Commission.

Susan Juby.
Toronto, ON: Razorbill/Penguin Canada, 2015.
309 pp., hardcover, $19.99.
ISBN 978-0-670-06759-6.

Grades 7-10 / Ages 12-15.

Review by Ann Ketcheson.

*** /4

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.


“I was wondering if I could ask you a question.”

The low roof of the dugout presses in on us. I wonder if he knows there are people outside. Waiting to hear his truth.

“You don’t have to answer.”

Brian Forbes closes his eyes, which I have just realized are quite lovely and feathered with long lashes. He doesn’t respond, so I forge ahead. “Are you on drugs?” That sounds too harsh. I feel like one of those overly blunt people or like a drunk. Someone who has no filter. I’m embarrassed. I’m exhilarated. “I guess I’m asking whether substance abuse is an issue in your life.”

Brian Forbes takes another drag on his smoke.

“My life is an issue in my life,” he says. Because that’s sort of a Zen koan, I don’t know how to respond. Luckily, he continues. “Why do you want to know?”

“Because my friends and I have this theory that the truth can heal. So we’re asking people truths about things that other people already suspect.”

“Oh, right. I heard about this.”

“Yeah. It’s...a thing.”

“How’s that going?” he says. “Asking people the truth?”

“It’s good,” I say, feeling that the interview has gotten offtrack. “I mean, some parts of it are.”

“And some parts of it aren’t,” he finishes.

“My friends seem to enjoy it more than I do.”

“How does it make you feel? Asking people the truth.”

I consider. “Well, this is my first time. So, it’s good. I mean, it’s like unleashing something. Opening things up.”

“Freeing?” he says.

“Yeah. I guess.”

“Doing drugs is like that.”

“Oh?” I remember from creative nonfiction class that, when interviewing, it’s important not to interrupt. Silence can get people talking.

“You try it once. There’s a rush, and all the barriers between you and other people, you and yourself, they’re all gone. Everything is possible. You aren’t alone anymore.”

The description was exhilarating. Why hadn’t I done much in the way of drugs?

“And then?”

“And then you want to have that feeling again. But it turns out there’s like a half-life to getting high. The after-effects follow you around. Make the original situation, loneliness or whatever, worse. And it’s never quite as good as that first time. Taking drugs turns out to be a shitload of work, once you get right down to it. I think the correct term is diminishing returns.”

“I see.”

“My guess is the truth’s like that. You ask somebody the truth. Feel like you’ve moved into a different dimension. But it doesn’t end there. There are consequences to every action. Shadows.”


Norm (Normandy) is in Grade 11 at the Green Pastures Academy of Art and Applied Design when she and her best friends, Dusk and Neil, decide that life would be considerably easier if everyone simply always told the truth. The three decide to form the Truth Commission in order to ask various classmates about rumors which surround them. If everyone knows the truth, then rumors and gossip will just disappear. Simple, right?

     Juby poses interesting questions for her young adult readers about the fine line between wanting the truth and intruding on the privacy of those around us. She also illustrates how easy it seems to be to ask others to bare their souls and tell the truth while doing the same oneself can be difficult, if not impossible. Norm has little desire to look into her family and uncover the truths which are hidden there. Her older sister, Keira, has created a series of graphic novels which depict the family in very unflattering ways. Now Keira has left college and returned home although most of her time is spent elsewhere. No one in the family knows where she is nor what she is doing, and her parents feel they must give her artistic licence to continue her writing. Only at the very end of the novel does Norm find the courage to confront her sister’s behaviour and attempt to learn the truth behind her leaving college and making accusations against one of her teachers.

     Norm, Dusk and Neil are a trio whom readers will enjoy as each brings a different personality to the Truth Commission. Dusk can be tough and sharp while Neil is more like a calm negotiator. Norm joins the group with some hesitation and is the last of the three to attempt interviewing someone in order to learn the truth about them. Juby’s setting of an Arts Academy allows her to add a supporting cast of strange and wonderful secondary characters whose behaviour often goes beyond what would be expected and accepted in another setting. While adding interest, colour and sometimes humour to the novel, the characters seem rather stereotyped and, therefore, less believable as real people.

     Norm’s parents are also difficult to comprehend. Despite being made fun of and seemingly rejected by their older daughter, they have nothing but praise for her and explain any unusual or thoughtless behaviour as her artistic temperament. She lies to them and thinks nothing of disappointing them, yet they firmly keep their heads in the sand about her behaviour. Norm’s attempts to discover the truth about her sister and to enlighten her parents are seen as merely a bad case of sibling rivalry. The parents are cast as dysfunctional would-be artists who apparently have little grasp of, or interest in, reality, with no redeeming qualities to make them more believable.

     The novel is written as a creative nonfiction assignment by Norm, and so the reader has good insights into her personality and both her hesitation and motivation to be a part of the Truth Commission. There are times when she realizes that the truth is necessary and others when Norm understands that uncovering secrets can be dangerous and without any real merit. Learning this distinction provides both some of the humour as well as some of the poignancy of the novel.

     Because Juby has chosen the vehicle of a class assignment for this novel, there are 118 footnotes in the text. Occasionally they act as true footnotes, explaining a quote or giving context to something in the text. More often, they are asides in which Norm adds a personal opinion to what has been written. In general, they are disruptive and take away from the fabric of the story. Perhaps intended to add humour, they are merely distracting and aggravating, making the entire novel seem self-absorbed and turning readers’ attention away from the challenging theme. Both Juby and Norm come across as trying too hard in their writing.

     Some of her extraordinarily artsy characters seem weak and unrealistic, and the continual footnotes detract from the story rather than adding to it. However, thematically, Juby has presented an excellent young adult novel which probes the need for truth versus the comfort of keeping personal issues personal and, when necessary, using defensible little white lies.


Ann Ketcheson, a retired teacher-librarian and high school teacher of English and French, lives in Ottawa, ON.

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

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