CM . . .
. Volume XXII Number 26. . . .March 11, 2016
Victoria, BC: Orca, 2016.
198 pp., pbk., pdf & epub., $9.95 (pbk.).
ISBN 978-1-4598-0901-7 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-4598-0902-4 (pdf), ISBN 978-1-4598-0903-1 (epub).
Grades 3-7 / Ages 8-12.
Review by Janet Eastwood.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
Duke looked at Gabriella. “I guess we better tell you,” Duke said. “We run a kind of shelter for abandoned and sick reptiles, and a few other strays as well. Like Beaker and” – he pointed to a cage resting on the floor by the fridge – “Zak and Lysander.”
Amelia squatted beside the cage. Two fuzzy brown faces with huge ears stared at her. “They’re brothers,” Duke said. “They’re called Dumbo rats because of their big ears. They were cute when they were babies, and then they got big. Owner didn’t want them anymore. Same old story.”
“Like the turtles,” Amelia said. “Do they bite?”
“Never!” Duke said. “They’re both sweethearts! Zak has lung scarring, and he lets me give him medicine every day and never does a thing.”
Amelia rocked back on her heels, her head spinning. “I want to see everything.”
When Amelia’s parents separate, Amelia and her mom move into a tiny house in Vancouver’s east side, a house inherited from Amelia’s great-aunt. Money is tight, and the downstairs suite is tiny, so it is a relief when Duke and Gabriella agree to rent the basement. However, Duke and Gabriella are keeping a secret for fear of being kicked out: they take care of abandoned reptiles. Amelia, 11, is fascinated, as are her new friends, Roshni and Liam. Amelia’s mom has a major snake phobia and immediately gives Gabriella and Duke an eviction notice when she discovers the menagerie downstairs. Amelia, meanwhile, falls for Winston, a sulcata tortoise, who may have contracted a respiratory disease. She and her friends attempt to raise money for the medicine Winston needs, and, in doing so, they form a community out of formerly isolated neighbours. Winston dies, but Amelia’s mom decides that Duke and Gabriella can stay.
Situated in contemporary Vancouver in the months leading up to Prince George’s first birthday (July 22, 2014), a primary concern of the novel and of its protagonist, Amelia, is community. Amelia misses her heritage home and her old school in the west side of Vancouver, but, most of all, she misses her best friend, her dad, and the friendly neighbourhood she and her mother had left behind. Although they have been in their new house for around a year, nobody has come by to introduce themselves, and Amelia’s hellos have gone unnoticed by her new neighbours. This lack of community eats at Amelia as much as her dad’s betrayal does. Ultimately, the construction of a new community in her neighbourhood is necessary for Amelia to begin to repair the fractured relationship between herself and her father.
The human betrayal (Amelia’s dad and his girlfriend have a new baby, and Amelia discovers her dad and his girlfriend’s daughters doing the same Saturday Starbucks ritual that had been special for the two of them) is a fitting background for the more overt cruelty in human-animal relationships. On her trips to pick up animals with Duke and his anthropology major brother, Simon, Amelia glimpses the two extremes of love and abuse in human behaviour toward animals – love when an elderly woman asks for time to say goodbye to the lizard she cannot take into a care home; abuse and neglect when a man laughs at his own story of the painful accident that his late wife’s bird suffered through his carelessness. Most of Duke’s animals suffered injuries from their former owners or were abandoned in the city. In Amelia’s basement (or “Duke’s Den,” as he calls his business), the animals are given proper care and affection. It is, in fact, love for and fascination with these mistreated animals that inspires Amelia to reach out to her neighbours, and prompts those neighbours to invest in the animals and in relationships with each other.
In keeping with the theme of community, much of the story’s humour – as well as its pathos – comes from misunderstanding. Amelia interprets her next-door neighbour’s nonresponsiveness as snobbery, whereas Marguerite (the neighbour in question) is shy and fully absorbed in tending to her garden. Gabriella is horrified when Duke borrows money for rent from an Italian co-worker, fearing that anyone who would lend money on so short an acquaintance might be in the mafia. Liam’s enthusiasm for hot cars does not endear him to a possessive Mustang owner on Amelia’s street. And Amelia and Roshni do not always get along. Another primary source of humour is found in the letters that Amelia, Liam, and Roshni sent to celebrities asking for money to buy medicine for Winston, and in the letter Amelia secretly sends to Queen Elizabeth II. The letters are ingenuous, hilariously obvious, and right in line with the ages and characters of their writers.
The human relationships are caring without being perfect. Duke and Gabriella argue over money, something of which they are constantly short. Amelia is, initially, less than fully invested in her new friends, celebrity-obsessed Roshni and computer-geek Liam. Duke’s brother, Simon, is not from Amelia’s perspective as nice as Duke or Gabriella, but he proves kind when she is upset. Amelia’s dad, in particular, causes his daughter pain; Amelia’s reactions to his behaviour are realistic. The story does not wallow in Amelia’s unhappiness, nor does it skip past the outbursts of misery she feels. The emotions feel authentic.
Janet Eastwood is a graduate of UBC’s Master of Arts in Children’s Literature Program.
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