________________ CM . . . . Volume XXIII Number 1. . . .September 9, 2016


Dancing in the Rain.

Shelley Hrdlitschka.
Victoria, BC: Orca, 2016.
304 pp., pbk., pdf & epub, $14.95 (pbk.).
ISBN 978-1-4598-1065-5 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-4598-1066-2 (pdf), ISBN 978-1-4598-1067-9 (epub).

Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up.

Review by Penta Ledger.

***½ /4

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.



They order dinner and then sit quietly, their features soft in the flow of the candlelight. The snow has stopped falling, the clouds have lifted, and the lights of the city twinkle far below them.

Ryan clears his throat. “The past three months have been really special for me,” he says, breaking the long silence. “I was so nervous about asking you to do the Grind with me that first time?”

“You were?” Brenna’s eyebrows arch.

“Oh my god. I almost chickened out. I had to muster up all my courage to cross that mountain and ask you.”

“I’d never have guessed.”

“And each time we hiked, I did everything in my power to make you smile or laugh. Your face...it really...changes when you’re happy. You had me from the first smile.”

“Are you serious? I’m surprised you even noticed me.”

“Oh, I noticed you. And I can also say I wasn’t too surprised when I found out who your mom was. You’re equally lovely.”

Steaming cups of clam chowder are placed in front of them. Brenna picks up her spoon. “I thought I was your service project,” she admits, blowing on the soup.

Ryan looks up from the crusty roll he’s slathering with butter. “My service project? That’s a joke.” He takes a bite and regards her. “Though one thing I have learned is that when you help other people, you tend to help yourself too. So actually, you were helping me.” He nods, affirming what he’s said.

They eat in silence for a few moments, and then Ryan tackles the topic they’ve avoided for the past month. “It’s hard to know where we go from here, Bren. Hopefully I’ll be back, but it’s really hard to say. We’ll keep in touch - Skype, email…”

“It won’t be the same.”

“No. It won’t.”

Ryan puts his spoon down and leans into the table.

“Brenna, I’m crazy about you. Maybe we’ll be together again sometime in the future, but even it if doesn’t happen, at least we’ve had this much time together.”

Brenna struggles to remain composed. When the server arrives to take their soup bowls, she excuses herself and goes to the washroom. She sits on a toilet, drops her head between her knees and takes in deep, shuddering breaths. She leans her head back ,struggling not to wail at the injustice. She sighs deeply instead. Leaving the stall, she stares at herself in the mirror. The reflection shows a tired, pale face. She forces herself to smile. It’s true her face is transformed, even if it’s a fake smile.

Pulling herself together, she returns to the table. “When I graduate from high school, I’m going to Borneo,” she tells him. “My mom and I planned to go together, but I’m going to go anyway and sprinkle some of her ashes in the jungle.”

He doesn’t say anything for a moment, and they simply gaze at each other.

“Listen to you, Brenna. You have grown strong on the inside.”

She tilts her head.

“You’re looking ahead. Planning your future. That’s huge.”


Brenna Yokoyama is a 15-year-old who has lost her adoptive mother to breast cancer. The novel opens at her mother, Johana’s, funeral, and in trying to deal with the loss, Brenna looks to finding out more about her biological mother who gave her up for adoption when she was a baby.

      The Yokoyamas have always been open about Brenna’s adoption, and when she was a baby, they even encouraged her biological mother, Kia, to visit Brenna. The visits became less and less frequent as Kia struggled with her own life at 16-years-old. Brenna received a few cards over the years, but Kia has not been in contact for some time. It is not until Johana’s funeral that Brenna connects with the pastor, Justin Matthews, who was a friend of Johanna’s and also Kia’s. It is through Justin that Brenna is first contacted by her biological aunt, Angie, who is curious about how Brenna’s life has turned out.

      Shortly after Johana’s passing, Brenna turns 16. On this day, Brenna’s father gives her a journal written by her birth mother while she was pregnant with Brenna. Johana had been holding on to it for all those years and asked Brenna’s father to give it to Brenna on her sixteenth birthday. Inside, Brenna discovers why Kia gave her up for adoption and how she struggled with making the decision. The more Brenna reads the journal, the more questions she has and the only way to find out is to ask Angie.

      As time passes, Brenna returns to her work on Grouse Mountain, volunteering at the bear enclosure just as she and Johana used to do. Everyone is happy to see Brenna back, especially Ryan, a 19-year-old Aussie who worked closely with Johanna. He convinces Brenna to join him hiking The Grind, a well-known mountain route, telling her that the exercise will help her deal with her mother’s loss and become strong mentally and physically.

      Brenna and Ryan hike a few times per week and get to know one another. Brenna learns that Ryan’s younger brother died several years ago and that his mother has been in an institution in Australia, struggling with addiction. At first, Brenna believes Ryan is simply helping her because he was so close with Johana and feels like he needs to take care of her. However, this quickly changes as Brenna and Ryan fall in love and Ryan becomes Brenna’s first lover. Although Brenna is dealing with her own life, she is acutely aware that her adoptive sister, Naysa, is struggling in her own way.

      Naysa is a bit younger than Brenna and to cope with her feelings, she turns to hanging out with a new crowd that is not a good influence. Naysa begins staying out late, drinking, smoking, dressing scantily and going to parties. Though Brenna and her father try to speak with Naysa, she shuts them out. It is not until Naysa is rushed to the hospital for alcohol poisoning that the family is able to get back on track. To help, Brenna connects Naysa with Angie, hoping that Angie will be able to help Naysa work through her feelings and find healing. Brenna also encourages Naysa to hike with her, passing on Ryan’s belief in the healing power of exercise.

      Ryan is dealing with his own feelings as he gets word that his mother will soon be released from the institution. He has to leave British Columbia and Brenna to help his mother begin her life again. Though they have to part, Ryan and Brenna love each other, and Brenna makes plans to travel to Australia after she graduates.

      Dancing in the Rain presents the reader with a detailed look into the issues of adoption, loss, death, love and the struggles of adolescence through the perspective of a 15 turning 16-year-old, Brenna. The believable plot line is knitted together with the concept of connections and how it is through our connections to those around us that we are able to gain strength and build our lives.

      The story is grounded in Johana’s death and Brenna’s biological mother. These mothers and Brenna’s struggle to make her peace with having neither is a constant in this novel. Every thought, decision and observation of Brenna’s involves the memory of her two mothers. Though the reader remains hopeful that Brenna will meet her biological mother, Kia, she never does. The reason provided seems questionable: because Kia may not mentally be able handle contact from Brenna.

      The present tense narration is refreshing and lends a sense of urgency to the plot. It also might engage adolescent readers more fully because they can imagine the story happening ‘right now’. The interspersed journal writing is appropriate to the story and adds to the character of a teenage girl. Quotes at each chapter heading are reflective of the themes of the novel and could connect YA readers to other texts.

      Though there is a lot going on in this novel, there are times when the action seems to slow, especially for longer descriptions. The descriptions do provide information to the reader about the setting or characters, but they might frustrate some young readers.

      The characters including Naysa, Brenna and their father, Brett, are well conceived. A reader could easily see these characters as real people going through real events. Brenna’s first sexual experience with Ryan was dealt with well considering it is not a ‘usual’ inclusion in a YA novel. That being said, there is some strangeness around Ryan’s connection to Johanna and his eventual relationship with Brenna. Interestingly, Brenna thinks the same thing, which makes Ryan’s ‘courting’ of Brenna a little troubling.

      The close of Dancing in the Rain does a fair job of wrapping up the many storylines, but there is no catharsis. This could be seen as a way to enhance the feeling of loss that Brenna experiences and bluntly present reality to the reader, but after such a long journey through the plot, Brenna seems to have lost more than she had to begin with, including no hope to connect with her biological mother and her first love moving to another hemisphere. Despite these blows, Brenna does make plans for her future and is able to find closure with her mother’s passing.

Highly Recommended.

Penta Ledger is a teacher-librarian at Gravenhurst High School in Gravenhurst, ON.

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

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.
Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.

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