CM . . .
. Volume XXIII Number 38. . . .June 9, 2017
Here is Canadian YA writing at its best. Juby works her magic to entice us into the lives of 17-year-old Charlie Dean and John Thomas-Smith, both disadvantaged students eager to win a scholarship to prestigious Green Pastures High School which is devoted to the arts.
Before she died of an overdose, Charlie’s drug-addicted mother had taught her to sew. As her father Jacques bounces back and forth between sobriety and drugs, Charlie takes on the parental role while she immerses herself in fashion knowledge. John lives in genteel poverty with his beloved grandparents as his father has deserted him and his mother is absent, teaching ESL overseas. His grandfather sets John up in the garage, teaching him all about metal work. When they learn about the fashion design contest, the winner of which will receive a scholarship to Green Pastures, Charlie is ecstatic, sure that she will win, her future as a designer guaranteed, while John throws his hat in the ring as he sees it as a way to get into a school where he can transfer to metal work and lift himself out of poverty. John’s long-time girlfriend Barbra and his best friend Booker are astonished and uneasy at John’s ingenuity. As John and Charlie work at creating an outfit and finding models, they make new friends and even a girlfriend, Jo, in Charlie’s case. At the final fashion show, Charlie’s model, her father’s girlfriend Mischa, OD’s on drugs and they are disqualified. Jo wins the scholarship, but a four week summer course is set up for the other contestants, and John gives up his spot to Charlie, going on to perfect his metalwork skills on his own so he can get into college. While Charlie sets up a fashion Design Club and she and Jo become a couple, Mischa disappears from her treatment centre. Although Jacques lapses (yet again), he gets on a methadone program which stabilizes him.
At first, Charlie seems really pretentious, almost twee, but soon the reader realizes that Charlie’s relentlessly cheerful comments, her retro clothing and her passion for meticulous sewing mask her unpredictable, grief-filled life, her resignation over her father’s addictions, and her role as the parent in her family. Charlie’s courage, pragmatism and clever inner dialogue will inspire readers as they laugh out loud. Her resilience and ability to adapt and continue on in the contest after Mischa’s ex attacks them and ruins the dress will be admired by all readers.
John is a more slippery character. Although he is immediately likeable, a down-to-earth, funny, sarcastic, creative teen, loyal to his wonderful friends and so appreciative of his loving grandparents, John becomes dissatisfied with his place in life. Unable to admit to his aspirations out loud, he uses his charm to weasel his way into the contest. He uses Tesla, the contest organizer’s right-hand person, who not only completes the sewing of his outfit for him but also sleeps with him. John keeps Barbra and Booker in the dark while he sneaks around, becoming less satisfied with his friends’ limited lives. However, he is forthright with the child for whom he designs the dress (and her parents). He becomes less reactive and more thoughtful as the novel progresses, making friends with Brian, a half-hearted Green Pastures student, and beginning to admire Charlie rather than dismiss her sardonically. John’s learning so much about fashion opens up new ideas and hopes for him. He becomes less intimidated by and dismissive of the fashion students whom he gradually comes to admire.
Barbra and Booker represent the cheerful, loyal, satisfied-with-their-lower-class-life teens. They are kind, wonderful people who have no aspirations to rise above their current status in life. Neither curious nor suspicious, they are drawn together at John’s betrayal.
Charlie’s father Jacques is the perfectly drawn addict, a sorrowful man who adores his daughter, indulging her when he can, but unable to sustain sobriety for any length of time, bouncing from one dramatic girlfriend to the next. Jacques, always apologetic and never violent to Charlie, exposes her to the sordid drama, the poverty and crime of drug addiction and the unsustainable hope that he might ever overcome his addictions. Mischa represents the abused woman who sinks into addiction to escape pain.
This novel raises many fascinating themes: Can teens escape poverty and abuse by attending programs set up for that purpose that draw on artistic talent; How can the children of addicts be best supported; Can foster care turn around the lives of at-risk children; Should we be open to new thinking and experiences or remain in relatively comfortable safety; What drives artistic expression; How necessary is a supportive group of fellow artists to artistic success; What drives addiction, and how are addicts best helped; What are the advantages (and disadvantages) of wealth?
Short chapters alternate between the first person diary entries of John and Charlie. Often a section will end with a fashion quote that encapsulates their feelings about people or fashion. Charlie’s sections all begin with “Here’s an Idea” that offers fashion and life advice from her perspective. The novel is divided into six sections that reflect the major plot events. Charlie and John have reflective moments in which the reader learns about their pasts and their families. A few pen and ink sketches illustrate fashion outfits and models. A few instances of texting advance the plot well. Dialogue is truly up-to-date, sharp, amusing and reflective of the language of present day older teens.
Set in Nanaimo, BC, the high school scenes could be at any large economically deprived high school where budget cuts have decimated the arts and practical arts programs, and where lower class students are encouraged to accept the limitations of their lives. John’s grandparents’ rigidly depressed retirement, Charlie’s interactions with the generally incompetent foster care system and Jacque’s situation in and out of sobriety reflect Canadian systems and values. Their twisty road trip over the Malahat in an old Taurus to shop in Victoria’s fabulous fabric store contrasts well with John’s experience trying to buy fabric at the soulless Fab Fabrics.
The Fashion Committee, a poignant, laugh-out-loud funny novel, will appeal to both boys and girls who want to believe, as Charlie says, that life has a way of working out.
Joan Marshall is a Winnipeg bookseller who still loves to sew.
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other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
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.