CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 41 . . . . June 22, 2018
Felix Knutsson is almost thirteen and lives with his mom and his gerbil Horatio. Felix is a bright guy, with a mind for trivia, and his favourite television show is Who, What, When, Where. Because his mom Astrid has trouble finding and keeping work, eventually the two are evicted from their apartment and end up living in a Westfalia van. At first, it seems like a fun camping holiday, even if they don't leave Vancouver. But as the time in the van extends indefinitely, Felix gets tired of not having a shower or even a toilet. Worst of all, his mother forbids him to mention their living conditions to anyone in case some government official finds out and attempts to put Felix in a foster home. Eventually Felix has a solution: he will try out for the junior edition of "Who, What, When, Where", and, if he wins the entire competition, the cash prize will be more than enough to pay the rent and get him and his mom back on their feet again.
Readers will cheer for Felix throughout the novel. He is a character who is just on the verge of becoming an adolescent, and the transition from childhood is difficult for him. Felix has so many good qualities. He loves his mom and does his best to support her. His sense of fairness and honesty comes through in the novel, and he tries hard to treat everyone with respect. Despite often being hungry and having to wear secondhand clothes, Felix is determined to do his best both at school and at home. He has the usual ups and downs with his friends, but he understands that they will support him and value his friendship despite his current homeless situation.
Author Susin Nielsen has provided her readers with an intriguing and interesting cast of supporting characters. Astrid is a single mom who truly loves her son and wants the best for him. When she resorts to some rather questionable behaviour, readers understand that she is merely trying to provide the necessities of life for herself and Felix. She seems to be something of an artistic free spirit, and so the routine of a nine-to-five job just doesn't work for her despite her knowing she and Felix need a stable environment. The stress occasionally results in "slumps" for Astrid, depressive episodes when she can barely function. Understandably, this affects her employment as well as her relationship with Felix and others around her.
Felix's friends, Dylan and Winnie, are also memorable characters. Both do their best to help Felix, bringing extra food in their lunches and inviting him to their homes. Nielsen also provides her readers with various adults who play a role in Felix's life, and, unlike adults in many young adult novels, they are supportive and have his best interests at heart. If it "takes a community to raise a child", this is a wonderful example. Felix's teacher is genuinely interested in him as a person and eventually involves the whole class as they attend the taping of the game show to show their support. The couple who own the neighbourhood grocery store understand and help Dylan despite his attempt to steal food from them. Even characters like the policewoman and the government official who eventually get involved treat both Felix and his mother with respect and empathy.
As the title implies, the main theme of the novel is being homeless and the sense that it can happen to anyone despite their best efforts and intentions to look after themselves. Nielsen treats Astrid and Felix and other homeless characters in the novel with understanding and sympathy. Readers see the difficulty of living on the streets and not having money for even the basics of life. Readers watch as Astrid and Felix have to continually move the van in order to evade problems. And readers see their dependence on community centres and gas stations and laundromats for their everyday needs. Nielsen helps her readers see that even if people have no money, they need and deserve respect. It is important to Astrid that their living conditions be kept secret as much as possible. She still has a pride that will not allow her to go to homeless shelters and food banks.
Themes of depression and homelessness might make this a bleak and difficult novel, but it is just the opposite. There are both emotional and physical difficulties, to be sure, but the novel also offers a great deal of hope. Everyone around Astrid and Felix tries to understand the situation and help them however they can. As well, Nielsen's writing style adds a great deal of humour to the story. Readers see Felix cry and wonder if he will ever have permanence in his life. But on the other hand, readers watch him as he attends his first dance and figures out what a corsage is and why it might be important to his date. Even his attempts to keep clean are amusing – the handicapped washroom at school provides more space and more privacy than the regular one to wash armpits and other more private areas and Felix figures this out very quickly.
It is not often that a novel can provide such a great mix of memorable characters and pertinent, timely themes mixed with a good story and dashes of humour. Award-winning author Susin Nielsen has done exactly that with No Fixed Address, and her readers will enjoy the interesting and fast-paced read and find much to think about after they close the cover.
Ann Ketcheson, a retired high school teacher-librarian and teacher of English and French, lives in Ottawa, ON.
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