CM . . .
. Volume XXIII Number 13. . . .December 2, 2016
Toronto, ON: Second Story Press, March, 2017.
327 pp., trade pbk., $12.95.
Grades 9-11 / Ages 14-16.
Review by Karen Rankin.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
“I feel sad, too. More than usual.”
“I know, but Gran Josephine is alone, too,” [Connie says.] “She hasn’t had the best year either – with Grandfather getting sick and all. Josephine says that you and Destiny can come visit. I’ll make her come get you next weekend, and we can have a sleepover.”
This novelty instantly lifts my spirits.
“Really? She’ll do that? Wow, Josephine is so nice.”
“Yeah.” Connie nods. “Not like Gran Dot at all.”
“True that.” I think that expression is cool – I hear some older kids say it.
“You know, Faith – one night a couple months ago when Mom came home, I snuck downstairs to get a glass of milk and I heard them fighting.” Connie looks around to make sure no one can hear. “It was quiet arguing, like so we couldn’t hear and wouldn’t wake up. Gran said that Mom was taking drugs.” My heart sinks into my gut. Drugs. I know drugs means something bad, though I’m not sure to what extent. I’m certain the kind of drugs that Connie’s talking about make you sick, not better. There are certain things you learn fast in my neighbourhood – the word drugs conjures up all sorts of images in my mind’s eye – and they aren’t images of the inside of a pharmacy.
“No! Not drugs, not Mom.”
“Shh! Quiet,” she hisses at me. “Do you want the whole world to know?”
I shake my head and focus back on the dirt.
“I think that Mom is just sad that she doesn’t have my dad anymore.”
“How do you know?” I ask.
“That’s what Gran said.”
I look at Connie and furrow my brow. “But wasn’t that a long time ago? Didn’t he die before she met my dad?”
“Yeah. But she still misses Simon.”
“How do you know?”
“Gran said so.”
I’m silent for a moment and wonder if she misses my dad, too. “Is that why Gran thinks Mom is taking drugs?” I ask.
Connie shrugs again. “Gran said that, ever since my dad died, Mom has been ‘spiraling’ and that she’s been pulling Gran down with her. She said that she shouldn’t have had you and Des – and Gran said that she had to leave her nice apartment and move into housing to get enough room for us all.”
A sucker punch in the stomach would have been easier to accept. All this is more than my seven-year-old brain can handle. I feel doom rise up from my gut and settle in my throat.
“Mom kept telling her to shut up, but then Gran said that Mom needed to leave the guy in Toronto and get cleaned up. To come home and work or get welfare because she needs to stay home and look after us.”
I feel like I am going to be sick. I can’t speak – I can’t even look at Connie. “I guess it’s just going to be you and Destiny now.”
“But wait – I thought she was working to get money to buy a house.”
“Other moms work all the time … and live with their children.” Constance raises her
brows when she says that, meaning, So there, think about that.
In an abstract, nonverbal way, I think I understand what Connie is telling me, but in my heart, I cannot admit that my mother is taking drugs because she misses my sister’s father.
Are we not enough for her? Am I not enough for her?
And Gran – doesn’t she love her grandchildren enough to accept us and take care of us when her own child can’t? All of these demon thoughts chase themselves around my mind in a way that can’t be put into a seven-year-old’s vocabulary. For me, there are no words for this – just feelings of sadness and a sense of unwelcomeness.
In the “Prologue” to Breaking Faith, the story’s narrator, Faith Hansen, recounts the day at age four that she witnessed a neighbour shoot a police officer dead before her mother was able to throw herself on top of Faith to protect her from further gunshots. Now, at 19 and having gone through her “journey in the Dark, fighting the demons of anxiety, drugs, and being on the bad side of mental health,” Faith has taken her counsellor’s advice to write her story.
Faith’s mother, Lacey, married the love of her life, settled in a small town not far from Toronto, and gave birth to Faith’s older sister, Constance (Connie). Then Lacey’s husband was killed in a car accident. Faith speaks to her absent father on the phone once every few years and has never even met her younger sister, Destiny’s, dad. Having always lived in public housing, Faith and Destiny are left alone there with Lacey’s mom, caustic Gran Dot, after Lacey gravitates to Toronto and Connie goes to live with her wealthy grandmother on the other side of the small town. Lacey fails to keep numerous promises to reunite her little family, and Faith – living for her mother’s next visit and reunions with Connie – becomes Destiny’s main caregiver. Sensitive and insecure, she also becomes increasingly withdrawn and turns into the class “oddball”. Lacey eventually dies as a result of drug abuse the summer after Faith finishes grade seven. By then, Faith has made two close friends. Like Faith, Norma and Ashton have their own problems and are pariahs, but, in addition to experimenting with weed, alcohol, and pharmaceuticals together, the three friends respect and stand up for each other. Their friendship helps Faith weather middle school and into the beginning of high school, that is, until Norma is hospitalized for attempting suicide. When 16-year-old Faith attends Connie’s nineteenth birthday party, she overhears the sister she has adored, admired, and seen as a lifeline saying, “Sometimes I wish I was an only child. It would be easier that way – to just forget and live here with my Gran. Not worrying about my sisters and their potential fuckups for the rest of my life – having to think of one day bailing them out of jail or something like that.” Without saying anything, Faith leaves the party and makes her way to Toronto where she lives ‘clean’ in shelters and on the street without contacting her relatives for nine months. After being taken in for a couple of weeks by a kindly old woman who dies while Faith is there, she finally calls Gran Dot and Destiny. The call ends in an argument with Gran Dot. Given the opportunity, Faith decides to try heroin and is quickly hooked. One freezing night two years later, she is broke and suicidal when Connie, now a university student in Toronto, happens upon her. While going through recovery counselling, Faith is diagnosed with PTSD as a result of witnessing the murder of the police officer when she was four-years-old. Constance, Destiny, and even Gran Dot are committed to supporting Faith in her rehabilitation.
Faith’s relatives, few friends, and most of the peripheral characters in her story have unique voices. These characters’ feelings are shown well through their dialogue and action. Faith’s narration feels authentic, given that she’s supposed to be a taciturn high school dropout with significant issues. Nevertheless, while her storytelling style is at times genuine, that ‘authentic’ voice more often tends to be almost clinical or sardonic, and this can be distancing for readers. Faith doesn’t always show her feelings: one learns that she has withheld a lot of them from everyone, including readers, as per the following revelation near the end of her story. This reticence, while it may be in character, makes it difficult at times to connect with or really care about her.
I think about how meticulously this very conversation had played out in my head a bazillion times, the placing of the words, the appropriate cadences and inflections to give just the right amount of emphasis to express exactly how much [Connie] had hurt me and disappointed me.
Breathing in deeply, I pause. Just start from where it hurts, Faith, and let the words do the work. Let them come out like a sliver from an old and festering wound.
Breaking Faith is a thoughtful, exhaustive, and realistic account of how a child’s life can get derailed without appropriate love, nurturing, support, and (likely) some professional psychiatric care after witnessing a horrendous event such as a murder.
Karen Rankin is a Toronto, ON, teacher and writer of children’s stories.
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