CM . . .
. Volume XXII Number 30. . . .April 8, 2016
In Snow Apples, and Dreaming of Horses, author Mary Razzell created a young female protagonist, Sheila Brary, who is growing up in an unhappy home where the parents are at odds, the father unreliable and often absent. The mother, from Ireland, is long-suffering but not much help to her growing daughter. At 16, Sheila is finding life stifling with her mother and siblings in a remote British Columbia outpost near the end of World War II. Her ambition is to become a nurse.
Meg, the protagonist of Taking a Chance on Love, is like Sheila in several ways: the troubled home, Irish-born mother, BC location, and nursing ambitions. In fact, just getting into Taking a Chance on Love, I checked back to see if the protagonist of the earlier novels was named "Meg" but, no, it was "Sheila." Taking a Chance on Love, however, is about finding true love in wartime, while the earlier novels were about family unhappiness.
As Taking a Chance on Love opens, 16-year-old Meg and her friend Amy, on their way home from school, find a note that hints of a romantic rendezvous. The girls eventually find out that a local man and woman, both married to other people, have chosen the woods for their rendezvous.
From the first page, Razzell shows why Meg is reluctant to get romantically involved with anyone. It's hard to find adults in this novel who are happily married, and family breakdowns abound. The lovers in the woods are only one example. Amy's mother is having a flirtation, if not an affair; Meg's father has had women on the side for years, and, if her parents are currently having an uneasy truce, it's because they are rarely together now that Meg’s father has enlisted. Meg's boyfriend, Glen, has had a hard life as the child of divorce. When he is reunited with his mother, whom he hasn't seen since age three, their newfound rapport is marred by her new family's jealousy.
Not only are the grown-ups a cautionary tale, but also many younger people are unlucky in love. Romances are often brief and temporary as young men leave to serve their country. A "carpe diem" spirit prevails. To contribute to the war effort, Meg writes to Doug, the son of one of her mother's friends, who is lonely, stationed in Saskatchewan. When he writes to say that he is coming home on leave, "longs to hold her" and loves her, Meg is disconcerted and writes back to say that she wanted to be his pen pal, not his girlfriend. On arriving home, he has another girl with him, and when they spot Meg, they laugh together.
Razzell demonstrates the prevalent attitude of the era toward women's education. Meg hopes to go to university and have a career, but both her mother and her young male lab partner believe that educating a woman is a waste since she will only spend her life doing housework and taking care of her children. Razzell also shows that pregnancy was a big fear when contraception was illegal and hush-hush. When Meg's friend becomes pregnant, she is the target of risque jokes and shunning: other girls avoid her for fear of getting a bad reputation by association.
The suspense lies in seeing Meg negotiate this mine-field. Although she has observed many relationships and fears pregnancy, she is oddly naive for a 17-year-old. On one occasion, she goes to a small, deserted island with Glen, someone with whom she has been spending her free time and exchanging personal confidences for a month. Awakening from a nap to find him naked and close to her, she is shocked. While readers applaud her assertive reaction, they may wonder why such an aware young woman didn't anticipate such a development.
Meg has four male friends: Doug, Glen, Jack and Bruce, but Glen and Bruce are the only real contenders for her heart. Bruce has a mystique of heroism and suffering that intrigues Meg as she works at his mother's guesthouse. Older than Meg, he was badly burned in the Battle of the Atlantic, and he is staying with his mother while awaiting more skin grafts. He is a taciturn Mr. Rochester type, except that he doesn't have a Mrs. Rochester in the attic, only an ex-fiancee.
At first, Bruce ignores Meg except to ask her to get him a glass of water. Subsequently, though, he becomes her white knight in a motor boat, rescuing her from an awkward situation. On his sister's suggestion, he takes Meg to a dance where he prevents a fight, gets injured in the process, and wins Meg's admiration for intervening.
Although Bruce builds Meg's self-confidence, he frequently acts paternalistic, advising her about scholarships, informing her that Amy is a bad friend for her, and disparaging Glen as needing "a good stint in the service to make a man of him." When Meg's lab partner, Jack, invites her to the Hallowe'en Dance, she all but asks Bruce's permission to go. In a kind but fatherly way, he says: "It's a way of getting to know boys, men, so that later, when you decide to get married, you'll know what kind of man you want."
The author depicts Bruce as Mr. Right because his courtship, if one can call it that, is slow. Eventually he sort-of proposes to Meg, saying that she's "special" to him and that maybe when she's 21 or so she might "think it's time to get married, and that by then he will have his law degree. Meg is stunned, surprised that he sees them having a future together. The vagueness of this proposal, in which he speaks of loyalty but not of love, is also stunning. In choosing Bruce, Meg acquires the supportive fatherly presence she has lacked, but will she want that for a lifetime?
Reading is a two-way street, involving both the author's intentions and the reader's response. Young readers may relate better to Glen than to Bruce and see him as a better mate for Meg. Like many young people nowadays, Glen knows the difficulties of being part of a so-called "blended family". Unlike the uncommunicative Bruce, he shares his thoughts and feelings with Meg and listens to hers; they both dream of university. Too young to be a war hero, Glen has shown his strength by surviving. His attitude to sex: "I have needs; you do too," though possibly bold for his era, seems normal today.
In a short epilogue the author tells us what happened to the main characters. Many underwent experiences that cry out for full dramatization. Instead of summing up, it might have been more effective to end with a local celebration (possibly of V-E Day) and leave the characters looking hopefully toward the future. Overall, however, Taking a Chance on Love is a page-turner. Although we are pretty sure that Meg will land on her feet, we keep reading to find out how.
Ruth Latta lives in Ottawa, ON. For more information on Ruth Latta's writing, visit http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com
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