________________ CM . . . . Volume XXIII Number 40 . . . . June 23, 2017


Caterpillars Can't Swim.

Liane Shaw.
Toronto, ON: Second Story Press, 2017.
245 pp., trade pbk., $13.95.
ISBN 978-1-77260-053-7.

Grades 8-12 / Ages 13-17.

Review by Rob Bittner.

*** /4

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.



"I don't think I would have done anything. Maybe called 9-1-1. I don't think I would have thrown myself in the river for some stranger." [Cody]'s shaking his head.

"I don't believe that at all. You're the strongest swimmer in the school. You've got your life saving certificate…. [Y]ou work as a lifeguard in the summer at the pool. I know you would have saved him."

"Nice that you think so. I'm not so sure. And I know that even if I had saved him, I wouldn't have decided I had to be his friend, too. The guy's a pariah at school. Everyone knows he's gay. It's not exactly helping your cool factor to be hanging with him."

Ryan, confined to his wheelchair due to cerebral palsy, is out for a little bit of fresh air in the morning. When he pauses by a nearby pond, he notices someone wearing a yellow skirt walking into the water and looking determined as they descend deeper and deeper. When Ryan realizes the person isn't going to come back up for air, he decides to put his swim training to use and throws himself into the water. As a result, he pulls his shoulder and is out of commission from the swim team for the next semester, but he has managed to save Jack's life even though Jack is not exactly happy about the turn of events.

      When Ryan and his friend Cody end up taking Jack along on a trip to a local Comic Convention, Cody points out that Ryan is acting more and more like he is Jack's parent rather than his friend, leading to more than one bit of drama. The three young men each have their own issues, but they slowly begin to better understand one another and become closer, even through their hang-ups. Ryan's mother and Jack's mother aren't necessarily the best of friends, and Ryan's mother isn't quite sure that Jack is the best person for Ryan to get close to, but as the novel moves forward, the two women manage to work together to ensure a better future for their children.

      The book overall is quite moving and makes some rather interesting connections between disability and identity. Shaw, through effective and non-didactic dialogue, explores the difference between pretending a disability is nonexistent (Cody) and recognizing that a disability is a part of a person's lived experience (Jack). Like those who claim "I don't see colour," Cody treats Ryan as though his disability is non-existent. After all, Ryan can swim! But when they are on their trip to the comic convention, for instance, Cody neglects to book a room that is accessible, meaning Ryan can't access the washroom. Jack and Clare, on the other hand, see Ryan as a person in a wheelchair, but treat that as a part of his being and experience, thereby allowing them to empower Ryan, but also help him out in situations where he is in need of assistance: "Clare didn't forget about my chair. She talked about it like it was just a normal part of the conversation. A normal part of me."

      Though there are a few conversations that caused me to raise my eyebrows (mostly in relation to Cody, who is about the worst best friend I've read recently), Shaw ensures that there are other perspectives from Ryan's mother, Clare, Jack, etc., to complicate any simple comparisons between sexuality and physical disability. During one particular conversation, Cody compares Ryan's being in a wheelchair, trying to get a girlfriend, with Jack's being gay. And while physical disabilities and sexuality do both encompass parts of individual identities, the fact that Ryan is not being judged for wanting to date girls is not at all the same as Jack being judged for wanting to date other guys.

      Jack and Ryan are pretty strong main characters, though Jack's secondary character status does lead to his sexuality being less explored; Jack's sexuality is mostly examined through a heteronormative lens, meaning Jack seems to exist more as a lesson for other straight characters rather than existing as a thoroughly explored character in his own right. Cody, as well, is a very misogynistic and, dare I say, annoying individual who does not really develop throughout the course of the narrative, except by the very end. His ignorance and insensitivity around Ryan's disability and Jack's sexuality lead to him being incredibly hurtful at many points, giving other characters the opportunity to counter his opinions and provide alternative ways of understanding disability and queer sexuality. He works more as a catalyst for discussion rather than a fully formed character.

      In the end, with the exception of Cody, I feel that there is a lot to love and learn from the characters in this narrative. Shaw's writing is strong, her dialogue engrossing, and the overall plot well-paced. This is a strong addition to the canon of literature in Canada that works within realms of sexual diversity and disability. A thought-provoking and compelling narrative that teenage fans of character-driven books will definitely enjoy.


Rob Bittner has a PhD in Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies (SFU), and is also a graduate of the MA in Children's Literature program at The University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC. He loves reading a wide range of literature, but particularly stories with diverse depictions of gender and sexuality.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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