________________ CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 31. . . .April 13, 2018


Ray vs The Meaning of Life.

Michael F. Stewart.
Ottawa, ON: www.michaelfstewart.com (Distributed by Ingram), 2018.
275 pp., trade pbk., $15.95.
ISBN 978-1-989133-00-2.

Grades 7-10 / Ages 12-15.

Review by Ann Ketcheson.

**** /4



“I need to get out of here. I don’t see how my mom and Crystal can do this every summer. I won’t find the meaning of life, not here, not in an RV park,” I say.

Salminder leans forward. “Do you think a Russian has a better chance of figuring out the meaning of life than an American?”

“No,” I say.

“Chinese then?”

I shake my head.

“What about a rich person versus a poor one? Or fat versus thin? Gay or straight? Does one gender have a better chance than another?”

“No, I guess not. Shouldn’t.”

“What about someone in a prison cell, do you think they could figure it out? On a boat, in space, on a ski hill?” He watches me in silence.

“Okay, okay, I get it.”

“So if it doesn’t matter who you are, how rich you are, where you are or what you’re doing, then why can’t you find the meaning of life here in this very RV park?” “


Ray’s grandmother has just died, and the family is surprised that she named Ray as the person to inherit her estate, the Sunny Days RV park. There is a catch, however. Within a month Ray, who is just 17, must figure out the meaning of life. If he cannot, then the park will automatically go to other members of his family instead. Grandma has even hired a self-help wizard named Dalen Andrews to assist Ray on his quest. After one month, the family lawyer will reveal Grandma’s interpretation of the meaning of life which she has written down and left in a sealed envelope. Ray will have to give up his gaming and other pursuits if he is to take on his grandmother’s challenge.

      Michael F. Stewart has written another terrific young adult novel. The opening chapter explains how Grandma died and mentions that her brain has been cryogenically frozen so that one day she can return to run the park once again. Despite her demise at the beginning of the book, Grandma remains one of the main characters in the novel. This opening chapter is zany and guarantees that readers will not only laugh out loud but will want to continue on with the story. A grizzly bear, a backwoods trailer park, a forest, a swamp and an uncle whose life’s work is making fireworks. How could readers resist?

      Ray is an interesting and likeable main character. At first, his life revolves around gaming, eating Kraft Dinner, flipping burgers at a stand in the RV park and dreaming about Tina, a girl he would really like to impress. As the coming-of-age story progresses, Ray learns first-hand that running an RV park requires a great deal of hard work – bathrooms must be clean, the road to and through the park must be maintained, the swimming pool needs to be opened. Since no one is willing to give him much help at the beginning, Ray quickly learns to be self-starting and motivated.

      Along with learning about the physical work, Ray learns the importance of understanding and empathy. He is in charge and must, therefore, deal with complaints and issues from all kinds of different people. Some are in the park for a holiday, some because it is close to their summer work, and some because they are hoping to get away from their problems. Ray needs to be inventive and ingenious to find solutions and encourage the RVers to feel more like a family.

      The secondary characters add interest and perspective to the story. Some of Dalen Andrew’s observations seem rather simple and even trite, yet they provide a means by which Ray can search his life and his motives as the story moves along. Ray also learns from his mother, uncle and stepsister, as well as memorable characters such as Tina and her father and young Penny who desperately needs a big brother figure in her life. These characters add humour to the book as well as provide a backdrop against which Ray learns some serious life lessons on his path to self-discovery.

      While the theme of searching for meaning in life is the central point around which Ray vs The Meaning of Life revolves, this search raises a variety of other topics. Stewart’s characters deal with life issues, such as serious illness, family breakdown and teen sex. All are handled with care and thoughtfulness by the author.

      Ray vs The Meaning of Life will have readers rolling their eyes in mock horror, laughing out loud, and asking themselves about the meaning in their own lives. For an author to take readers from the sublime to the ridiculous and back again shows both a willingness to take risks with his writing and an incredible understanding of his audience.

Highly Recommended.

Ann Ketcheson, a retired teacher-librarian and high school teacher of English and French, lives in Ottawa, ON.

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