CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number . . . . November 10, 2017
Milly is a 15-year-old who knows she is constantly being stalked by a wolf whose objective is to lure her into the Dark Wood. The wolf can be avoided and perhaps outwitted by magic. Counting to 100 before any kind of doorway is the only method by which Milly can ensure her safety. When Millyís stepmother commits her to an adolescent psych ward, Milly knows that this change of environment means she will have to be particularly wary.
Michael F. Stewart gives his readers a main character who is quirky, engaging, strong, smart and mentally unstable. While Millyís world seems absurd and her behavior extreme, Stewartís readers are drawn in and see things from Millyís point of view, feeling what she is feeling. I suspect everyone who reads the book will attempt to count to 100 before speaking or going through a doorway just to see how it feels. Milly is torn between her recollections of her mother before her motherís death from cancer and her distrust and dislike of her stepmother, Adriana. Every fairy tale fan knows that stepmothers are nothing if not evil!
The secondary characters are a mixed group who suffer from a variety of mental issues such as anxiety, OCD, PTSD and bi-polar disorder. Readers meet Red who cannot seem to overcome the grief of her motherís death in a car accident and Pig who delights in setting fires. Peter thinks he is a fairy who is able to fly, and Vanet is a youth who delights in masquerading as other people. Wolfgang, Beauty and Rottengoth are other characters who bring variety and interest to the story and, like the others, add to the overall plot.
Stewart alludes to Grimm-like fairy tales throughout the novel which underlines the somewhat unrealistic and fantastical setting of a psych ward. Milly occasionally wonders if she is awake or dreaming, and readers may also ask themselves what is real. The author is able to provide a true sense of the atmosphere of the psych ward with his clear descriptions of the physical ward, the patients and staff, and the activities designed to help the adolescents understand and overcome their mental problems. This intertwining of illusion and gritty reality give the book its authentic feel.
The authorís depiction of those with mental illness is sensitive and understanding. While there is tension and a feeling of unease throughout the book, there are also moments of humour. The novel is emotionally powerful. All of the teens are there for different reasons, and readers watch as they struggle with their day-to-day problems. The teens use various methods to determine and understand what led them to this point in their lives and mention such underlying issues as trauma and grief which have caused them to become so fearful, anxious and mistrustful. At the same time, they work at finding solutions which will allow them to return to their everyday lives.
Stewart gives his readers a book which is full of interesting personalities and thought-provoking events. There is a decided fairy-tale aspect to the story, and yet it is never clichťd, and the final outcome is unexpected. Most importantly, the author leaves readers with the sense that whatever quirks we have (and we all have some!), they do not define the people we truly are.
Counting Wolves is an engaging and interesting read and, more importantly, shows young adults that there are ways to cope with mental health issues. Thanks to Michael F. Stewart for contributing to such an important and timely discussion in such an honest and sensitive manner.
Ann Ketcheson, a retired teacher-librarian and high school teacher of English and French, lives in Ottawa, ON.