________________ CM . . . . Volume XXIII Number 10 . . . . November 11, 2016


Rez Runaway. (SideStreets).

Melanie Florence.
Toronto, ON: James Lorimer & Co., 2016.
181 pp., trade pbk. & epub, $12.95 (pbk.).
ISBN 978-1-4594-1162-3 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-4594-1163-0 (epub).

Grades 11 and up / Ages 16 and up.

Review by Joanne Peters.

***½ /4



I lived in a place where the smell of fry bread was always in the air. We hunted for food rather than for sport. Our reserve didn't have a casino or anything. We lived pretty simply. But it was home and I didn't know any other life.

For the most part, I guess I was a typical seventeen-year-old. I played soccer with my friends. We gathered on Friday nights to talk and dance and just hang out. I had an old beater that I bought for fifty bucks from Harry Lafontaine, but it didn't run most of the time. I tinkered with the car when I had time. I watched hockey and played PS4.

. . . See, for the most part I'm just a normal, average teenaged boy. Except for one thing. When all the guys sat around and talked about the girls they wanted to hook up with or commented on how big Maggie Running Wolf's boobs were getting, I found myself looking at Benjy – a kid I had known since we were babies. I'd look at my best friend talking about Maggie and I'd wonder what it would feel like to kiss him instead. (pp. 7-10)

Every Saturday morning, Joe and his mom spend time together, drinking coffee and just talking about events of the past week and plans for the next. Joe's parents divorced when he was very young, and it's clear that the two are close. Mary Littlechief notices the girls who notice Joe, and, in the course of conversation and coffee, she attempts to set him up with the granddaughter of a friend. Then, when her sister arrives, Aunt Ava joins the matchmaking campaign. Joe manages a smooth dodge, but admits that he "hated lying to them," (p. 17) about his total disinterest in girls. What would happen if the truth came out?

      Well, he soon finds out. That night, Joe's friends have planned a "group date", and he's not keen to go. He doesn't want to "worry about fending off the advances of a girl [he] wasn't really interested in", and he "especially didn't want to sit watching the person [he] was secretly interested in go off with a girl into the woods". (p. 20) But, Benjy talks Joe into inviting a girl named Sadie on the date, and after some time around the fire, she leads him into the woods. The kissing starts, and when Joe doesn't respond with the same degree of passion, Sadie is mortified and hurt at his rejection. Returning to the campfire, Joe drinks himself into a stupor, and after the party breaks up, Benjy helps him home. With his best friend's arm around his shoulders, "having Benjy so close was intoxicating and comforting in a way that [he] knew being with Sadie could never have been." (p. 39) In a moment of complete recklessness, Joe kisses Benjy.

      Back at home, Joe is upset; he punches out the wall in his room, and then, cuts himself with a razor. He stops because he can't bear the thought of his mom finding him dead. At breakfast, it's obvious that his mother has already heard about what happened at the end of the bush party, and after calling him "Berdache" (an epithet meaning "kept boy"), she slaps Joe in the face. Joe has never heard the word before and has to Google it to find its definition. As he reads, he also learns about the concept of two-spiritedness, an Aboriginal belief that one being can have both feminine and masculine identities. The idea intrigues him, and he thinks of his childhood when he dressed up in dance regalia traditional for girls and told Ava that he wanted to be a mom.

      Aunt Ava's attempts to reason with her sister are fruitless; Mary would "rather be dead than have a son who is gay." (p. 52) Ava's always known that there was something different about Joe, even when he was a little kid, and she completely accepts him as he is. Both sisters were raised and educated in the residential school system, but Ava's faith is less rigid, and she tells Joe that "God doesn't make mistakes, Joe. If you're gay, then that's the way God meant you to be." (p. 56) Joe's sense of relief at his aunt's love is short-lived.

      The situation gets worse quickly: a "God Hates Faggots" sign appears on their lawn, Joe's driving across the rez to confront Benjy and apologize to him results in false accusations of his hitting on other guys, and ends with his receiving a massive punch in the face from Benjy. Back at home, feeling hurt, shamed and totally alone, Joe decides that there is only one solution. While his mom and Ava argue, he takes one pain killer pill after another, but, as he listens to the two women, he realizes that his aunt truly supports him and that's enough to force him to vomit up the drugs. Nevertheless, deciding that he can't stay at home, he collects all of his cash, all of his belongings, gets into his car and heads for Toronto, a place that is "big and diverse . . . [and which] had to be more accepting" (p. 72).

      Joe's attempt to escape the rez is a series of misadventures, but he does get to the city and is dazzled by Toronto's bright lights. For a brief moment, he feels safe and relieved: "No one was looking at me sideways. No one cared that I had a thing for my best friend. . . . I was just another face in the crowd." (p. 84) But, theft of his wallet and all his remaining cash forces him to leave the youth centre in which he briefly takes shelter, and to hit the street.

      As he wanders the main streets of downtown Toronto, he's desperate and considers calling his mom, but he can't bring himself to do it. He's propositioned, offered $50, but turns the offer down. Finally, Joe stops to rest in a park called Allan Gardens, and there he meets an old man named John Burnstick. He's from Eagle Creek First Nation, Joe's home. John went to residential school with Joe's grandfather (a bad experience for both of them), and while Joe provides news from home, John shares his meager dinner. As they share food and memories, Joe realizes just how homesick he is, a situation which John completely understands. But Joe can't survive on memories of fry bread; hunger finally forces him to "say yes to one of those men who drove by trolling for young boys." (p. 108) It's degrading, but it feeds him and John until a bad date threatens Joe with a gun and pistol-whips him, leaving him with serious head injuries.

      He's rescued by a beautiful girl named Obsidian, and, in the course of the night, Joe tells her his name and his story. She listens, and, for the first time in a long while, he feels safe. Like him, Sid (as she calls herself) has had identity issues, too. She describes herself as "an African-Canadian transgender girl" (115), and although she hasn't transitioned through surgery, unlike Joe, she is completely comfortable with who she is.

      The pair are also comfortable with each other, and Sid tells Joe her story of abuse and rejection by her family before she came to Toronto where she has been hustling to stay alive. Joe feels that he's falling in love with Sid, but his feelings confuse him: "loving Sid brought up a lot of questions about me. Would that mean I wasn't actually gay? Or more gay?" (p. 126) Joe has been thinking that he might be "two-spirited", and with Sid's encouraging support, he comes to accept that identity.

      Joe and Sid decide that they can make a life together and make plans to leave Toronto for a smaller city. They decide to also take John, whose drinking and chronic cough have both worsened. Cash from one more date will buy their bus fare, and so, despite Joe's misgivings about the driver of a red Audi soliciting her, Sid gets into the man's car. Too much time passes, and Joe becomes worried. When he does find Sid, she's a mess: stabbed, beaten, and barely alive. But, she's a survivor, and despite a near-fatal stab wound, broken ribs, a broken nose, and massive facial bruising, she lives. Happiness is short-lived. After Joe hears the good news about Sid, the Toronto police call to let him know that John had died that evening.

      With John's death, Sid and Joe are both overwhelmed with grief. Many evenings, John had joined them for dinner at their squatter's quarters (a derelict theatre), and as they shared time, food, and stories, he had "been more of a father to [them] than either of [theirs]." (p. 166) When Joe goes to the police station to pick up the box containing all of John's belongings, amidst the clothes, old photos of John with the wife and family who left him because of his alcoholism and abusive behaviour, Joe finds a letter addressed to him, to be read after John's death. For John, Sid and Joe had become the family he had lost, and so, his home and the funds from his residential school compensation settlement are bequeathed to Joe, in order that Joe and Sid can have the home that they need and deserve.

      Lorimer's "Sidestreets" series offers fiction for reluctant teen readers, and, although Rez Runaway may have a Reading Level of 3.9, it's a compelling read that deals with plenty of complex and current issues. Melanie Florence has a real gift for immersing readers in the story; you can smell the wood smoke at the bush party, see the non-stop activity of downtown Toronto at night, and, if you know what fry bread tastes like, you know what Joe and John are missing. She's gifted with an acute ear for teen talk, understands teen thought (yes, they do think), and is a sharp observer of teen behavior. Her characters are genuine. Joe's shame, guilt, and confusion at his mother's disavowal of him, and his friends' cruelty are a common experience for gay and transgender teens, Aboriginal or otherwise. Gay and transgender teens from smaller communities sometimes head to big cities, hoping to disappear or find acceptance, only to find themselves homeless, the initial glamour of the big city replaced by culture shock, loneliness, and the brutality of street life. For kids like Joe, coming from small towns or reserves like Eagle Creek, it's overwhelming, and if nothing else, Rez Runaway is a cautionary tale about the dangers of running away to live on the streets.

      Intertwined with Joe's struggle to understand his identity is the subtext of the residential school experience and its impact upon subsequent generations. Mary Littlechief, Aunt Ava, and John Burnstick all attended residential school, and each is affected very differently by that experience. John's punitive experiences at the Mohawk Institute led him to a lifelong addiction to alcohol and personal failure as a good husband and father. Raised by nuns, Mary Little chief rejects her son, believing dogmatically that Joe is an abomination who will spend eternity burning in the fires of Hell. However, her sister Ava absorbed a different message and is unconditional in her love for Joe, believing in a God who is merciful and loves all.

      Rez Runaway's intended audience is probably the upper grades of high school, grades 10-12, both in terms of content and language. As a former high school teacher, I can tell you that the profanity is no worse than anything you'd hear in most high schools, but that doesn't mean it won't offend someone. While there are many novels dealing with a teen's struggle to accept his or her own sexual identity, this is one of the first I've come across, dealing with a transgender character and two-spiritedness. At the end of the book, Joe and Sid are the fortunate beneficiaries of John's gift. Not all street kids are lucky enough to escape their marginal life, and if this novel has a fault, it's in this fairy tale ending. But, that's a minor flaw in an otherwise well-written and engaging novel. Rez Runaway's a good choice for all sorts of reluctant readers in a high school library: male, female, gay, straight, Aboriginal or not. One caution, though: be prepared for a possible challenge. Joe is a really nice guy and Sid is fun and spunky, but I don't think that either of these characters will change the minds of readers who are vehemently homophobic, nor will the book be a comfortable choice in some highly conservative school communities.

Highly Recommended.

Joanne Peters, who lives in Winnipeg, MB, is a retired teacher-librarian.

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

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