CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 34. . . . May 4, 2018
The boy on the gurney is 17-year-old Donovan Turner, and Bee is his girlfriend, Beatrice D’Amato Northway. Right now, she’s keeping vigil in the Intensive Care Unit of the Ottawa General Hospital. His mother, Trish, (who left her cell phone back at home) and stepfather, Scott Yarrabee are on a camping trip in Algonquin Park, and, as for Donovan’s father, Allen McGeary, well, who knows where he is. Bee received Donovan’s last text message, and until his parents can be found, she’s “allowed to be there, one those good news/bad news things. The good news was that she could stay as long as she wanted; the bad news was that might not be very long.” (p. 11) Donovan has been the victim of a hit-and-run; his once-athletic body is shattered, and, now, he drifts in and out of a state that can just barely be called consciousness. Occasionally, with the most pained effort, he utters words or syllables, “Are, you, see, . . .” .
In the next chapter, the story shifts back to the events of the rainy night that ended with Donovan’s arrival in the ICU. At some point on the evening of April 15th, after visiting his father, Donovan had hitched a ride with a creepy stranger, was ditched on the side of the road, and when he tried hitching another ride, the driver of that car swerved to avoid Donovan, flipping his Camaro and killing himself. It’s a strange world in which Turn has found himself, a place where “fat perverts ditch you and a walking pile of blankets steps into the night and disappears and racing cars fly off into the trees and nothing is as it is meant to be.” (p. 28) And there’s more – : a briefcase in the Camaro was thrown loose by the impact, and, when Donovan retrieves it, he finds it full of cash, a lot of cash. Suddenly, he hears sirens and imagines the conversation he’ll have with the cops, about the briefcase and the dead man in the Camaro. As Donovan stares out into the wet forest beyond, he sees a light, is drawn to it, and sets off, feeling like “some dark crime [is] weighing heavily on his broad shoulders. . . . There was something else he had to think about. Something he needed to tell Bee. He stopped. “ ‘Are you . . .’, he said. But he’d lost it again.” (p. 31)
Where is Donovan? In the Part One of the novel, “The Space Capsule”, he’s in the hospital’s intensive care unit, a place of tubes, monitors, blinking lights, beeping machines. To Bee, it’s like a space capsule, a self-contained world, just barely supporting Donovan’s life. However, Donovan is also in another world, a strange world of dreams, memories, flashbacks, and hallucinations, of which few are happy and many are downright terrifying. Bee’s last text message to him was, “Where are you?”, and as she watches him, recording his every tortured syllable in her Moleskine journal, she asks herself that question again and again.
From that text message, the police were able to find and contact Bee, and soon enough Staff Sergeant Jim Bell and Inspector Callista Stills arrive at the hospital, hoping that Bee might have some information that will aid in their investigation of the accident. The stage manager for their high school’s drama group, Bee is organized, resourceful, and a keen observer. Her tote bag says “Theater is my bag”, but she’s no drama queen. Although exhausted by the emotional strain of watching Donovan’s struggle, she senses that there’s something more to the circumstances of the hit and run. After a few minutes of questioning, Bee learns that there’s been another “accident”, and that Donovan’s estranged father is dead. More disturbing is the fact that Donovan visited his father that night, April 15th, and the police believe that there is a connection between the two deaths. Bee knows that Donovan had planned to tell his father that he wouldn’t be contacting or visiting him anymore, and Al McGeary, a clever, sarcastic and manipulative alcoholic, wasn’t going to take the news well.
Bee also knows another side of Donovan. “His temper. He hated it. Hated that he lost it so easily.” (p. 131) Soon, it looks as if her boyfriend has gone from being the victim of a hit and run, to a possible suspect in a murder investigation. The detectives said that the scene of McGeary’s death was chaotic. “There had been violence” (p. 85) and, regrettably, Bee revealed that Donovan was an ace baseball player. A baseball bat can inflict serious damage. And, amongst Donovan’s utterances, are words that sound like “Killed him”. As Donovan’s condition worsens, he tries desperately to communicate with Bee who reassures him of her belief in his innocence. Finally, his parents arrive, and then, it happens: “She saw Donovan rise from his bed into the dim mechanical air of his chamber, watched the wires and cables and tubes fall away, saw the capsule of his room suddenly fall out of orbit and drift off until its glinting surface was lost in dark matter.” (p. 209)
Although the description of Donovan’s death in the hospital sounds like a peaceful release, we know from Part One of the book that his journey from life to death has been difficult. He experiences extraordinary pain –physical and emotional - during his trip through an underworld, an alternative reality of past and present, for which there is no future. He tries desperately to make sense of the events of that night, and it’s an epic struggle, full of violent encounters with monstrously evil strangers, narrow escapes which lead to further perils, in a hellish landscape of dampness and stygian darkness. He’s a “traveler in a land that is part memory, part dream, and with all the vestiges of the kind of pain only the living can feel.” (p. 127) There’s a ferryman named Charlie, (whose black dog is named Minos), a woman named Jilly who serves as a protector and guide, and several times, Donovan encounters his father, who always eludes him. When he finally catches up to him, he finds the younger man of childhood, before Trish and Al broke up. And “then everything went black.” (217)
In Part Two, “The Bowhunter”, Bee is on a mission. Sitting in her pyjamas in her bedroom, she re-reads her journal, reviewing the past year, thinking about their relationship, trying to understand Donovan Turner in all of his complexity, trying to make sense of his last sixteen or seventeen words. Bee knew of Donovan’s troubled relationship with his father, knew that his plan to end it with his father would go badly, and, as the daughter of a therapist, she had urged him to seek professional help. Her reflections are interrupted by the announcement of a visitor: Inspector Callista Stills. Stills tells Bee that autopsy results indicate no traces of blood or alcohol, so Donovan didn’t stumble out into the path of the car that hit him, but Stills isn’t ruling out suicide, especially if Donovan did kill his father.
Callista Stills is on a mission, too. She knows of and recounts a number of past incidents in which Donovan’s temper resulted in physical altercations, and while Bee doesn’t dispute the facts, she points out that “he gets mad and then he goes straight to remorse.” (p. 238). Stills really gets under Bee’s already-sensitive skin, and when she asks to see the Moleskine journal, Bee refuses and tells the detective of her own personal investigation: she drove to the location of the accident, trying to determine how it could possibly have happened. Stills is unimpressed with Bee’s investigative skills and warns her, “Don’t play Nancy Drew with me, Beatrice” (p. 242), warning that, if necessary, she’ll subpoena the journal as evidence.
But Beatrice wants justice for Donovan, and to get it, she will defy Inspector Stills and channel her inner Nancy Drew. After a visit and conversation with Donovan’s parents, her resolve is firm. Driving her tiny Nissan Figaro (a rare retro vehicle, completely unlike Nancy D’s elegant blue roadster), Bee sets out on an hour and a half drive to Perth, ON, hoping to find Jilly, the woman for whom Al McGeary left Donovan’s mother, and whose name Donovan uttered frequently during his journey in the space capsule. Not only does she find Jilly, and then, Kali (Al’s latest in a string of girlfriends), she also finds unexpected danger. I’m not going to reveal how it all ends. But, I will tell you that, as Bee pieces together the pieces in the chaotic puzzle that was the final day of Al and Donovan’s life, I read the most compelling 100 pages of young adult fiction I have experienced in my three-decade career as a CM reviewer.
As a reviewer, I often re-read sections of a book, but I read The Ruinous Sweep twice, and I’ll probably read it again. Tim Wynne-Jones has won numerous literary awards, and this book is definitely another contender. Bee and Donovan are amongst the two most engaging young adults you’ll find, this unlikely pairing of theatre girl and baseball player, intelligent, witty, and decent. But, each has a dark side, and each knows it: for Donovan, it’s his anger, and for Bee, it’s the “girl who pushed too hard, a bully herself.” (p. 232) The focus of the book is on the two doomed lovers, but equally strong were Wynne-Jones’ portrayals of Winters (the inflexible, rule-following ICU nurse), Callista Stills (tough and determinedly adversarial), and even Al McGeary (words are his weapon, and he knows how to wound with them). The opening epigraphs, taken from Dante’s Inferno and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, set the tone for an enthralling story, one enriched by mythological allusions and nuances of magic realism.
The Ruinous Sweep is a book for both male and female readers in the upper grades of high school, strong readers who enjoy a challenging narrative. There’s a bit of swearing (nothing you haven’t heard before in any high school hallway), but it’s contextually appropriate, and Wynne-Jones has a real ear for adolescent speech and insight into their thoughts. The Ruined Sweep is a story of love, of intense hatred, of “a world populated by evil and foulness, but also by blundering stupidity, wrong lifestyle choices, and horrendous mistakes in judgment.” (p. 367) And it all just sweeps you along, in the way that life and death can and does.
A retired teacher-librarian, Joanne Peters lives in Winnipeg, MB (Treaty 1 Territory and homeland of the Métis Nation).