CM . . .
. Volume XXII Number 41. . . .June 22, 2016
Toronto, ON: Kids Can Press, 2016.
143 pp., hardcover, $16.95.
Grades 3-6 / Ages 8-11.
Review by Kris Rothstein.
After school, I don't go right home. Instead I walk to Pinky's house and ring the doorbell. I want to ask if she ended up coming to school today. I want to ask her why she never goes outside. And what her mother prays for. But nobody answers. I ring it again. And then I put my ear to the door and listen hard. Call me crazy, but I'm sure I hear someone breathing on the other side. That and the distinctive squeak of a thumb being sucked.
"Pinky? Padma? Are you there?" I say.
And then I hear the sound of bare feet running away across the hardwood floor.
Why won't they open the door? Is it some kind of game? Like a reverse Nicky Nicky Nine Doors?
I reach into my schoolbag and take out a piece of notepaper, a pencil and the Fig Newtons I saved from my lunch today. From Finch, I write. Then I fold the notepaper around the cookies and slide the whole thing through the narrow mail slot on the door.
At dinner, Mom tells me she got the TV fixed so I better not go breaking it again or next time she'll take the handyman's bill out of my allowance. I gobble down my fish sticks, race downstairs and turn on the TV, hoping to catch up on some of my favorite shows. But instead of Laura, Mary and Nellie Oleson, there's a breaking new story flashing across the screen.
It's Terry Fox.
He has to stop running. His cancer has spread.
"Now I've got cancer in my lungs," he says into a bouquet of microphones.
Like Daddy, I think.
I cry along with Terry for a few seconds. And then I snap off the TV because I don't want to watch anymore. I feel so sad about this news. I can't explain why because I've never even met Terry Fox, but somehow this feels almost as bad as the day they buried Daddy. Like my heart just broke all over again.
Shy and downtrodden, Finch Bennett is living a life of isolation and under-stimulation ever since the death of her beloved father nine months earlier. It's 1980, and the 11-year-old has no friends, a mother who is wallowing in numb grief and a brother who was once kind but is now best friends with a frightening and sadistic boy. Just about everything else is against Finch, including a mean teacher. That is why Finch is so excited when a new family moves in next door with two girls, including one her own age. Finch is desperate to visit, but her mother discourages her from 'bothering' them. An opportunity doesn't arise until Finch loses her Frisbee next door. Sweet and quiet, Pinky Nanda is a lifeline for Finch, even though Finch can tell there is something odd about the new family and their ridiculously overprotective father. Pinky isn't allowed to do much, including go to school much of the time. The crisis comes when Pinky's father attempts to take her and her sister back to India without telling their mother. Finch is able to inform the detective who is a family friend, and everyone rushes to the airport to retrieve the girls before it is too late.
Feathered offers an enjoyable and believable sense of voice in our young heroine. There is a light conversational tone which makes this novel an extremely easy read (it's also very short). It's very simple, perhaps more than necessary for this topic and audience and more so than books for this age group which handle this somewhat challenging thematic material and which were written in the actual 1980s. Much of the story is devoted more to creating the setting and context rather than the plot, and, while this makes for a slow pace, the atmosphere and ambiance are effective drawn. For example, nutrition has become lax at the Bennett household - Mom doesn't get around to buying or cooking anything healthy, and the family also doesn't have much money. These details create a realistic milieu; readers see Finch in a setting where she is deprived of good food, love and comfort. The plot is very one-dimensional. I'm not sure it is realistic that Finch is so aware of family finances and worried about her mom not having a job. Finch opens and reads a letter about foreclosure and, even though she is very young for her age and has learning difficulties, she seems to instantly understand the situation and the need to make plans.
A major problem with Finch, though, is that there is not much to her besides her problems and her sadness. I longed for Finch to have some particular character traits or some specific interests. She watches TV; she'd like to make friends. She is a sweet girl and a good person, but she is rather dull. Other similar heroines had a certain fire burning inside them which made readers cheer for them and which gave a sense that soon these girls would grow up to be strong and interesting women. A few more facets to Finch's personality would make her a more effective protagonist for this story.
The novel provides some exposure to another culture (the Nandas are Punjabi), but the few references to Ganesha probably won't tell twentieth-first-century kids much about multiculturalism that they aren't very aware of already. Neither does the period setting add too much to the book - Terry Fox crops up, as does the hostage crisis and Little House on the Prairie, but I'm not sure there is much about the past to stimulate the attention of young readers or make them feel like the setting is a foreign time and place that they are delving into. The time period seems a bit arbitrary.
Feathered is also a book about being on the cusp of adolescence. Finch is young for her age, despite her hardships, and so this is a subtle background theme. It isn't overdone, which is appropriate for the book since it is not the primary concern. But I did like the supporting character of Finch's former best friend who has left her far behind as she forays into a world more fun and social. Finch is very much a kid who sees things from a child's perspective. She can be smart and perceptive, but she is not encouraged and her possible dyslexia goes undetected. Finally meeting someone weaker than herself to stand up for is the making of Finch. She is a truly good person who wants to help others, but she just doesn't know where to start. This one fairly small incident will be that start.
Even though Finch gains confidence by helping a friend, Feathered is still a sad book about a fairly bleak world. It is, however, a world where good people can take action and erase some of the sadness, and so it does have a positive message about the importance of action. Finch's mom pulls herself together and gets Finch transferred to a nicer teacher. She finds a job. The police avert the attempted kidnapping. Finch's brother rejects his mean friend. Perhaps all the problems disappearing is unrealistic. Finch's life still doesn't look that great by the end of the book, but, at least, it doesn't look terrible. Perhaps if readers had a sense of what she and Pinky can offer each other (besides sharing their unhappiness) and how their friendship will nourish them both, it would be more uplifting. There are a number of unrealistic scenarios, including an invitation to speak at The Hague about child abduction at the end of the book. Even though Finch does help her friend by providing the essential tip-off, her part in the rescue is not that active. A little more vivacity and narrative drive could have made Feathered a moving story about surviving grief and finding something to live for.
Recommended with Reservations.
Kris Rothstein is a children’s book agent and reviewer in Vancouver, BC.
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