CM . . .
. Volume XXI Number . . . .June 19, 2015
Fight Back is Brent Sherrard’s third novel for Lorimer’s “SideStreets” series books, like those in Orca’s “Currents” and “Soundings” series, that are aimed at reluctant teen readers. Like the Orca titles, they are marketed as “edgy” and “presenting real world issues in real ways”.
Fight Back tells the story of Tyler Josten, a boy who grows up severely physically abused by his father and neglected and marginalized by his mother (who saves her energy to protect his little sister from the family chaos). After a particularly brutal attack at the hands of his father, Tyler is shipped off to live with his paternal grandmother, a woman with whom he has no real relationship because she’s cut off contact with her son. Although removed from his old life (new home, new school), Tyler is not provided with any other supports or coping mechanisms and increasingly turns to drugs and alcohol to help him find his way. School is one confrontation after another, and his grandmother continues to remind him that she’s just doing him a favour and, if he steps out of line, she’s done with him, too. After going on a bender involving a bottle of rum and a gun he’s stolen from his grandmother, he ends up facing serious criminal charges and being placed with a foster family, the Conways.
His experiences with the Conways who are incredibly loving and supportive in ways that no one in Tyler’s life has ever been: sit down family dinners, birthday celebrations, and boundaries enforced with words rather than fists account for most of the book. Wayne Conway is a former semi pro boxer who sees potential in his young charge and helps Tyler to use the sport to work through his anger and the fallout from his past abuse. Needless to say, by the end of the novel, Tyler has managed to overcome the inferiority complex his father instilled in him and though boxing has learned a number of coping mechanisms that seem to set him on better path going forward.
I found this book difficult to review. I feel like I’m part of a strange feedback loop: books written by adults who are following a structure that they think is going to appeal to reluctant teen readers, which are then reviewed by an adult who is trying to guess how the book might be received by this hypothetical adolescent reader who doesn’t like to read. As the reviewer, I feel as though I’m particularly ill equipped to offer insight as to whether this title is good or achieves its goals. I am not, nor have I ever really been, a reluctant teen reader. Instead, I’m twenty five or so years removed from the target audience, an English teacher and a teacher-librarian with degrees in English and literature. It’s hard to put all that aside and “imagine” what it must be like to be a grade 10 boy who chooses video games and Netflix over books, has never experienced any pleasure when it comes to reading, and probably has never finished a novel of his own choosing. (While we’re on the subject of my shortcomings as a reviewer, I am woefully ignorant when it comes to boxing, so I’m on shaky ground when it comes to that part of the book, too).
With all that in mind, I can only rely on my experiences as a high school teacher that have allowed me to interact not only with reluctant readers but also students like Tyler. From this vantage point, there was a lot in the novel that simply did not really ring true.
In many ways, Tyler is the kind of protagonist we all hope to find in a situation like this. Although he’s been abused and neglected for most of his life and his time in high school has been marred by drugs, alcohol and frequent suspensions for fighting, at his core he’s a voracious reader and a gifted athlete. All it takes is the right influences in his life to turn everything around. A truly “realistic” novel would probably have a protagonist who may be athletic (though perhaps more on the average side) and more importantly one who has significant gaps in his learning and an inability to build positive relationships in his life, especially with his peers. Believing the fantasy that troubled teens are all diamonds in the rough is appealing, but unfortunately it’s still largely a fantasy.
The other problem with the book is more structural. Things simply happened too quickly in the narrative for them to feel entirely realistic. Tyler has many experiences and goes through change that doesn’t really seem to develop organically, but instead happen because this type of novel requires their inclusion. Tyler’s relationship with drugs and alcohol is one such example. During the early part of the book, it’s clear that he is dealing with some severe alcohol and drug issues. Once he lands at the Conways and is introduced to boxing, he only has one minor relapse, and after some tough love from Wayne Conway, he leaves these issues behind for good. It’s possible that a turnaround like this can happen, but in my experience watching teens (especially those with family backgrounds as complicated as Tyler’s) struggle with drug and alcohol dependency, their recovery, at least at first, is a lot more jagged and rough, a lot more setbacks than steps forward.
Perhaps the part of the book that rings the least true is Tyler’s relationship with Joey, a boy with Down’s Syndrome who attends the same high school. One day, with no lead up or any hint that there is such a diverse population at Tyler’s new high school, Tyler stands up for Joey against some bullies and tells him that he can eat lunch with him any time he wants, believing that they’re “both misfits, loners”. Again, while this is entirely possible, it doesn’t usually happen so quickly and out of the blue like it’s depicted here. Having worked for many years in a school where autistic and Down’s Syndrome students share the hallways with “regular stream” students, the relationship between these two groups of students can be kind and caring, but generally it’s considerably more complicated than what’s depicted here.
And that lack of complication is really what’s at the core of problem with this book (and, frankly, many of the titles aimed at reluctant teen readers). Whether it’s the convenient Rocky inspired ending (it’s not about winning, but going the distance and proving to people your worth), the very obvious and almost overwhelming symbolism or the speed at which Tyler acclimatizes to romantic and family relationships, the novel rarely reflects the complexity of life (the irony being, of course, that the protagonists of these kinds of books tend to have incredibly complex lives).
There is a difference between simple and simplistic. Those titles that succeed in this genre are those that are able to tell a complex story simply. Fight Back, like many of its kind, is overwhelmed by the structure publishers imagine is required to attract the reluctant teen reader; Tyler’s complex life and his attempts to put it back together are rendered simplistic in their telling. I think the hypothetical teenage boy at whom this novel is aimed would see through the convenient plot turns and strings all neatly tied up ending and, despite its accessible language and linear structure, not end up much more satisfied than he would be with any other teacher or librarian recommended novel.
Recommended with Reservations.
Scott Gordon is a high school librarian and English teacher in Ottawa, ON.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any
other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.