CM . . . . Volume XXIII Number 2 . . . . September 16, 2016
Sixth-grader Fred Berdit is mourning the loss of his beloved dog Casey when he stumbles upon a storm sewer that leads to an "upside down" world where everything is the same, except that Casey is still alive. In a series of visits, Fred spends time with his alter-ego, "Freddie", playing happily together with Casey, but finds there is something that he's still angry about. When Fred's older sister Izzie learns of the alternate universe, the real truth is revealed: Fred and Izzie's father died in a tragic highway accident, and he must be alive there too! Together they traverse the sewer to the other world, ending up on a highway where they meet up with their surprised father and save him from the accident, then save him from the clutches of the dragons who, in that world, take people away when it's their time. Once they realize their "father" has his own family, they leave him and return to reality.
Downside Up is fantastical and poignant story of loss and acceptance by a seasoned storyteller determined to break out of the box. Fred is a likable character, but is difficult to understand, because even he does not know what he is feeling or why. At the centre of the story is his ignorance that he ever had a father, something which nags him without it ever being revealed to the reader until he, himself, realizes it. His and his mother's visits to a psychologist, and his mother's angst and moodiness, are documented without any understanding of what is going on—could they really be this traumatized by the death of a family dog?
The revelation, itself, is brilliant: when Izzy learns of the sewer portal, she asks Fred, "So how does he look?" to which Fred begins to reply, "You know…floppy ears…". Not only did he forget his own father, he never stumbled upon him in the other world because he had been meticulously hiding himself from the rest of the alternate family by visiting just after school when only Freddie was home. His near-breakdown after that is stunning and entirely believable, even if the circumstances that led him there are not quite. And that is part of the difficulty of the story: the reader spends so much time noticing little details that don't add up (e.g. his mother saying how hard it is to keep up a brave face at work) that it can occasionally be frustrating.
The author's appropriation of Fred's voice is disjointed, uneven, occasionally meandering—right down to what looks like stuttering on occasion—but that only adds to the realism of the voice of an 11-year-old. Some of the observations about Fred's classmates, and how those that appear standoffish in his world are actually Freddie's friends, amount to somewhat loose ends, although the point is there that Fred is not being charitable or sociable enough due to his grief. And although his mother does not figure much in the direct dialogue, an oblique image emerges that she was once happier than she is now.
The allegory (if that is what it is) about the dragons is one of the points of this book that readers may find frustrating. When first noticed, they are simply an oddity in Freddie's world, another puzzling detail readers will wonder about. But when they become central to the action, in the gripping final scenes where the alternate-father and the real-life kids are carried by one in a car, eventually escaping certain doom, they become central to the resolution of Freddie's mental state. Why does the dragon carry them away just before the tanker (that killed their real father) explodes? Why are they able to save him from "Dragon Mountain" to keep him alive in the underworld? The only answers lie in their brief discussion of the meaning when they return and the faint sense that Fred is beginning to heal.
Downside Up is a brilliant, gripping, but somewhat confusing book.
Todd Kyle is the CEO of the Newmarket Public Library in Ontario and President of the Ontario Library Association.
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