CM . . . . Volume XXIII Number 40 . . . . June 23, 2017
Almost 15-year-old identical twins Becky and Madeline are inseparable, even more so after Maddie's bicycle accident that has left her brain damaged. As Maddie struggles to gain some sort of normalcy with the help of her Best Buddy peer support person, 17-year-old Justin, Becky spirals out of control, no longer able to deny the pain and guilt of causing the bike accident that has crippled her sister. Justin faces his own grief over the death of his younger autistic sister, but his mother's full-blown clinical depression overwhelms their family life, and it's difficult for him to join in with his girlfriend Anna as she plans her next year at university. However, at the pet therapy ranch, owner Tonya appreciates Madeline's help with the miniature horses who work with the younger disabled children, and Justin finally coaxes his mother to the ranch where she bonds with Madeline and seems to be getting better. In an upsetting climax, Becky's Goth friends wreck one of the antique sleighs used with the horses and two of the precious horses escape but are found with the help of Madeline and Justin.
This is a "One-2-One" novel in which a peer support volunteer works with a disabled peer in the Best Buddies program based on the program by that name at Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School in Vancouver. Chapters alternate between the voices of the buddies.
As Maddie is first of all an identical twin, she and Becky are extremely close. So it is upsetting to Madeline that Becky has chosen a new group of questionable friends who belittle Madeline and keep the twins apart. Even worse, Becky wants them to go and live with their dad whom she perceives to be a pushover who will ignore her sneaking out, drinking and smoking. Madeline, whose home life at her mother's is crucial to her stability and her growth, is confused, angry and hurt by her sister's desertion. She has steeled herself against her lack of real friends but is blindsided by her sister's behaviour. The friendship Maddie has with Justin and the other members of the Best Buddies club is her only solace, and she makes the best of it. Gradually she accepts the attention of Asperger's victim Harrison and has a wonderful time at the Evening of Friendship where Justin and Anna support her while she recites one of her poems. She is befriended by Emily, a girl in her science class who is interested in the Best Buddy program. Madeline's work with the miniature horses shows her love of horses and her determination to do a good job at the pet therapy ranch where she learns the rules and the owner's expectations, cheerfully taking on the most menial and dirty of tasks. She finds a kindred spirit in Justin's mother Lori but does not understand why Lori needs to work with the horses. Madeline's disability is shown clearly through her occasional meltdowns which embarrass her completely, by her awkward gait and by her stilted conversation. Her disability makes her dependent on her parents, particularly her mother, and this makes her seem much younger than her almost fifteen years.
Becky's ability to soothe Madeline is not surprising as they are identical twins, but her on-going help when Madeline needs calming down is remarkable considering her own guilt. She fights her guilt by acting out, smoking and drinking and sneaking out when she's supposed to be at home. This rebellion seems quite old fashioned, or perhaps geared to a younger teen as 15-year-olds might be more likely to get involved with drugs in today's world. In the end, after a drunken episode in which her "friends" abandon her, she realizes what a bad influence her new friends have been and she turns them in to the police. She joins her sister, Justin, Anna and Emily in a new friendship group.
Justin's management of the Best Buddy program, for which he is the president, shows his organizational skills and his compassion for the disabled. His chaste relationship with Anna seems a little too old-fashioned for words, but his grief over his sister's death and his agony over his mother's depression are palpable and heartbreaking. He and his father work in tandem to maintain their own relationship and to bring his mother back to the real world.
The compassionate interest that Justin, Anna and Emily have in the disabled, and their determination to make a strong friendship group involving disabled and not disabled teens shines forth like a beacon for teens everywhere. Their interest is natural, not affected or forced on them. They talk eagerly about how their disabled friends are progressing and how much fun everyone is having. This powerful theme resonates throughout the entire book. However, how people can deal with grief is also a strong theme. The reader watches Justin's mother withdraw into herself, Justin remember his sister while he watches Madeline with the horses, Becky act out in anger, Madeline's mother baby Madeline and Justin's father go out of his way to support his wife. How Madeline bends, not breaks, like her beloved horse's name, Willow, is central to the book's themes, too.
As each chapter is told from either Justin's or Madeline's point of view, some of the scenes overlap and provide an interesting contrast as the reader sees the same scene from the two different viewpoints. Although the characters all carry cellphones with which to text each other, Facebook does not rear its ugly head, an odd exclusion as social media dominates the lives of today's teens. When Becky mentions Tinder and Match.com, her mother wonders how she knows about them, so clearly her mother doesn't understand the extent of teenagers' social media reach. The language used in the dialogue, although natural and sharp, does not reflect the swearing of today's teens. Justin's "heck" is almost amusing.
The book could be set in any large city with horse ranches nearby, and the school scenes could occur in any high school cafeteria and special needs classroom. Madeline's support worker, Mr. Singh, a gentle and caring man, represents the warmth of school support workers in classrooms across Canada.
Bent Not Broken will be appealing to grade 7-9 students whose altruism calls out for a new reality for all students, for an understanding that grief has no boundaries and that forgiveness and belonging are critical for us all.
Joan Marshall is a Winnipeg, MB bookseller.
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