CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 22. . . . February 9, 2018
Chance Devlin, 12, is the sole survivor of a suicide pact among her and two friends who’ve suffered constant bullying at school. Struggling to cope with the aftermath, haunted by depression and guilt, she resolves to tell no one and to commit suicide herself in order to fulfill her part of the bargain. While her family and doctors try in vain to cheer her up, and her teacher helps the class open up about bullying, she is visited in dreams by a mysterious red fox who calls herself Janet Johnson and promises to protect her. When her father takes her cross country skiing to try to get her out of her funk, she is led by Janet to the spot where the suicides had occurred. As she confronts the memory, Janet urges her to tell someone the truth, which Chance declares she will do.
A short book told in spare, almost nonchalant prose, Fox Magic tells a story that is both ripped from the headlines and ripe for use in schools and communities in crisis. The barrage of handwritten notes, seemingly directed at everyone in the class, bring to stark light the realities of twenty first century school life, despite the lack of social media or smartphone use. Chance’s torture is at once gripping and banal, and although she seems mature for her age, she is obviously still a child, and the details of her see sawing moods and self deprivation are darkly vivid.
For some readers, the lack of detail about the suicide, its reasons, and its methods, might be a bit frustrating. The educational context, including the teacher’s methods to face up to bullying and the students’ insights into their own community, come across as slightly contrived, somewhat sublimating the story into the message, the tools to overcome depression that it is suggesting. The dream fox can be confusing; there is a hint that its appearance is rooted in Indigenous belief, but otherwise its purpose is opaque, and its name quite odd. Indigenous culture is gently and explicitly explored by some of Chance’s classmates, adding a deeply localized context to a story likely set in Saskatchewan.
Chance’s father, whose attempts to draw her out by taking her to various activities are realistically awkward but occasionally come across as contrived, lapses into occasional edu speak himself. The end of the story is abrupt and anticlimactic, with Chance finding, after her revelation in the woods, that she had abandoned her father who subsequently fell and injured himself. Again, the reader may be frustrated without seeing Chance tell her secret, and yet the tiny joke she shares in her head with the fox (as her father is put into an ambulance) is a sublime sign of her lifted mood which the reader will share.
An afterword by a psychologist completes the package of a work contrived yet powerful.
Todd Kyle is the CEO of the Newmarket Public Library in Ontario.