CM . . . . Volume XXIII Number 37 . . . . June 2, 2017
In Munro vs the Coyote, Darren Groth has created a warm and compelling story of trauma and acceptance, of grief and recovery.
After the death of his younger sister Evie, the voice of the Coyote follows Munro Maddox wherever he goes. Harsh, dark and critical, the Coyote reminds Munro that he failed to protect his Down syndrome sister, failed to bring her back when she collapsed and died from a heart defect in a school hallway while he desperately performed CPR. The inner voice reaches such a clamour of guilt and grief that Munro, 16, is overwhelmed. Partly because of Evie's vulnerability, Munro was overly protective of her, and the flashbacks and loss of control leave him unable to function, paralysed by self blame.
When Munro's worried parents send him on exchange to Brisbane, Australia, from his native Vancouver, Munro finds a place where the Coyote is silent—the "Fair Go" community village where Munro volunteers with special needs residents. Munro's host family is warm and loving, and his new Australian friends draw him into their circle. But healing a heart is not an easy process, and Munro has to confront some challenging realities to silence the Coyote for good and begin the process of becoming whole again.
In Munro vs the Coyote, Groth writes with assurance and familiarity of both place and character. He creates unapologetically specific and vivid contexts in descriptions of both Ladner, BC, and Brisbane. It is clear he is familiar with both locations, and they form the backdrop for Munro's new experiences and memories.
Munro is a believable character, clearly suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. His angry outbursts stem from an inability to forgive himself. Before Munro leaves Canada and after he arrives in Australia, Coyote dogs him with criticism and blame.
Some of the strongest characters in the novel are the special needs residents of "Fair Go". By describing the residents with discernment, respect and humour, Groth brings individuality to the characters, some of whom are living with life long genetic conditions, others who have suffered from traumatic brain injury. Because Munro has been brought up in an accepting family environment, he has no difficulty communicating with, accepting and respecting the individuality of the residents. In return, they provide him with the chance to redeem himself for his failure to save Evie. Before he can heal, however, Munro needs to let go of his overpowering sense of responsibility, both for his own sake and the sake of the residents who have become his friends.
The treatment of special needs characters is refreshingly individual. Far from being a somewhat trendy "neuro atypical" narrator, the characters' limitations are accepted as part of their personalities, something neither to pity or to ignore. While great advances have resulted from modern public education models of inclusion, one would wish the acceptance and friendship illustrated in this novel were more the norm in today's adolescent world.
Munro is a well meaning kid who sometimes goes off the rails. Unable to tell the whole truth to his new "Aussie brother" or the girl with whom he shares a burgeoning romance, Munro hides his confusion which emerges as self destructive behaviour. The situation will ring true for adolescent readers. The presence of a dark, negative and hidden voice is not unfamiliar to teens in the process of discovering themselves. Munro's concluding self acceptance is satisfying and believable.
Though there are hints throughout the book, the final crisis that precipitates the resolution could be seen as somewhat contrived. However, it gives Munro an opportunity to see "through the veil" and say a final farewell. Fans of Groth's earlier Governor General's Literary Award shortlisted novel, Are You Seeing Me?, will appreciate a cameo of Perry Richter, who appears as an instructor and a voice of reason at Fair Go Community in Munro vs the Coyote.
Like the former novel, Munro vs the Coyote is an engaging and accessible combination of humour and seriousness. One challenge for some readers may emerge from the use of typographical distinctions in terms of bold, italic, serif and sans serif fonts to distinguish between outer voice, self talk, talk to the departed Evie and Coyote's berating blame. By mid novel, the pattern is clear, but some adolescent readers may find it confusing early on.
Overall, Munro vs the Coyote is engrossing, entertaining and uplifting. Munro's healing is slow and frustrating, but, in the end, we feel his satisfaction and resolve and, perhaps more importantly, his acceptance and friendship with special needs people as independent individuals. In my diverse, comprehensive high school, this book will strike a chord and shift perspectives for many readers while it entertains them.
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