CM . . .
. Volume XXIII Number 16. . . .December 23, 2016
Violet Davis, the 18-eighteen-year-old narrator/central character of All the Things We Leave Behind, seems to have the perfect teenage life. She's managing her family's antique barn while her parents are away. She's sharing a cottage with her friend, Jill, where they enjoy the company of their boyfriends. She lives in a peaceful, picturesque New Brunswick village where, on her breaks, she can cross the field behind the store and sit by the stream in a forest glade.
The prologue, however, signals a troubling story to follow. Through Violet, readers are told of a Department of Transportation pit in the woods, a pit known as "the boneyard", where employees dump the corpses of road-killed deer and moose. Local legend has it that a ghost herd, "translucent white", haunts the woods and causes accidents along the two-hundred-mile stretch of highway from which their bodies were removed.
When presenting the setting and characters, the author sows more ominous seeds of information. Violet's parents have gone to look for her missing brother, Bliss. Violet sleeps poorly; her boyfriend, Dean, (employed at the store) sticks close to her to see that she is all right. Although Violet could be staying in her family home just five minutes across the river from the store, her "Mum and Dad didn't want [her] in the big empty place by [her]self”; hence the cabin-sharing with Jill. Ten pages into the novel, Violet muses about the road trip she and Bliss used to talk about taking when they got older. "Never once did I imagine," she says, "that he'd go off without a word, without me."
Why did Bliss leave, and where did he go? Violet recalls the days when she and Bliss, newly arrived from Fredericton, were exploring their new rural environment. In the woods they met a piebald deer, Speckles, drinking at a stream; it touched its nose to Bliss's hand, and in the years that followed, it showed up periodically and acted friendly. This deer, and all deer, become linked with Bliss in Violet's mind.
When the children stumble upon the boneyard in the woods, they are horrified. Nine-year-old Bliss tells eight-year-old Violet, "We can't let it wreck the entire forest for us... It's only one bad piece of a whole big good thing. And it's really far away. And we're never going back there. We have to forget it."
The horror is etched on their minds, however, and, in years to come, it is "always ready to pounce" on Bliss whenever he feels sad. Based on what he tells Vi about his feelings, he may be suffering from depression and/or bipolar disorder. The novel is set in 1977; now, 40 years later, there is an increased awareness that many people, including teenagers, have mental health issues. Nowadays, Bliss would probably find help. Then, his parents dismiss his moodiness as just part of being a teenager. His mother scolds him for failing to "share in others' happiness" during an incident involving a hunter's pride in his kill. At one point, she suggests that Bliss speak to their minister, or perhaps a doctor, but he says no.
"You [always] feel better and back to normal eventually," Vi says to him at one point, and he replies, "So far, yes." Before he left, just after his high school graduation, Bliss seemed happy, and Violet believes he went out looking for a "more permanent happiness" that would clear his head of negative thoughts.
Violet lives and works among memories of the past. The antique barn is stocked with dead people's belongings. Riverton, the village in which she lives, is a planned community replacing a village which was submerged in the Saint John River when a dam was built at Mactaquac. Homes were either moved or demolished in favour of new ones in Riverton. Few locals make recreational use of the river where the old village site lies beneath. The King's Landing Historical Settlement, where Jill works for the summer, is a re-creation of the Victorian past (like Eastern Ontario's Upper Canada Village), including historic buildings moved from the flooded area, and it is there that Violet meets the little boy who believes in "cold breath ghosts". Store, submerged village, Victorian settlement and the boneyard are literal images brought together to convey an atmosphere of vanished lives that haunt the present. As William Faulkner wrote: "The past is not dead. It's not even past."
In a subplot, Violet goes to assess and purchase the contents of a summer home boarded up for 15 years. After a boy's drowning, his family couldn't bear to return there on holidays. Although the house is full of more dead people's belongings, its atmosphere of past happiness, particularly its "rainbow room", shows that the past can be a heritage of beauty. The drowning is a foreshadowing of an unhappy outcome, but an encounter with a mysterious stranger helps Violet to come to terms with death and loss. Before that happens, however, Violet experiences a descent into hell.
The supporting characters, like the principal ones, are well-drawn and fully-rounded, most notably Forest, the eccentric hermit, who proves to be an insightful friend to Violet, and Dean, a kind, understanding boyfriend. The friendship between Jill and Johnny and Violet and Dean is inspiring. Although the former pair are joining the adult world and the work force, while the latter two are university-bound, readers will sense that they will always be friends because of their mutual respect, goodwill, and shared past. The only negative characters are "Quinny", the middle-aged shop assistant who tries to boss Violet, and Violet's mother, who seems more concerned with appearances than with her son's problems. The villains in the novel are mental illness and the crews who dumped the deer corpses in an open pit rather than giving them a decent burial.
The only problem with this excellent novel is its title, All the Things We Leave Behind. Many books have similiar titles, such as What We Leave Behind (a 2012 novel by Rochelle B. Weinstein) and The Things They Carried (by Tim O'Brien). Were simpler titles like "The Boneyard" or "The Ghost Herd" discarded? It would be a shame if someone makes a mistake about the title and misses out on this sophisticated coming-of-age novel which has much to say to grown-ups as well as teenagers about grief, death and the supernatural.
Ruth Latta's latest YA novel is Grace and the Secret Vault (Ottawa, Baico, 2017).
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