CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 6. . . . October 13, 2017
Up North. (Orca Soundings).
Victoria, BC: Orca, 2017.
130 pp., pbk., pdf & epub, $9.95 (pbk.).
ISBN 978-1-4598-1456-1 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-4598-1457-8 (pdf), ISBN 978-1-4598-1458-5 (epub).
Grades 7 and up / Ages 12 and up.
Review by Karyn Miehl.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
I’d never been to the reserve before. I knew it was there, just outside the town limits. We’d driven past it a couple of times on our way out to the youth penitentiary but hadn’t ever had a reason to go in. I didn’t have any friends living down those narrow streets. The native kids seemed to stick together, just like every other group at school did. The few kids in band always huddled in a corner. The lacrosse guys bumped each other in the hallways and laughed at their own stupid jokes. And the kids from the reserve kept to themselves, in class, during lunch and in the parking lot.
“What are we doing?” Alan asked.
Keith had lit a smoke. He smoked cigarettes like they were providing him with pure oxygen. He’d light one up and take three or four really quick inhales on it before exhaling. The cigarette would burn away between his fingers until he remembered it was there, and then he’d do the same thing again. When the cigarette was little more than half done, he’d flick it away as though it had attacked him.
The van filled with smoke. Finally he rolled the window down.
“Get that rotten fruit ready,” he said.
“A little Thanksgiving treat,” Keith said, laughing. “We’ll give Tonto something to feast upon.”
“What are you talking about?” Alan asked.
Keith slowed at a green light as it turned to yellow. He signaled left to go into the reserve.
“They all hang out at the stupid community-center thing they have here. It’s not much bigger than a double-wide trailer, but they have dances in there every Friday night so all the kids can carry on their grand tradition of incest.”
“Dude,” I said. Somehow it took me that long to find my voice.
“What? There are, like, eight families in there. Everyone’s related, and then their kids all hook up.”
“That isn’t even close to true,” Alan said.
“Maybe not entirely, but close. Anyway, doesn’t matter. Do you know Devon Warchild or whatever the fuck his last name is?”
“Devon Warren?” I ask.
“Warchild, Warren, whatever. He’ll be here.” The light turned green, and Keith drove into the reserve.
“So he was hitting on Michelle last week.” Keith hauled on his cigarette, then flicked it out the open window. (From Chapter Two.)
Up North, a novel by Jeff Ross, is a quick yet engrossing read. Readers are drawn into the story immediately with the narrator, Rob, questioning “why that boy had to die”. Through the pages of the book, Rob recounts the events leading up to, and following, the death of his friend. Events begin when Rob and three friends (Keith, Alan and Joel) are a party that “sucked” (p. 2); they leave the party, at least one of the friends drunk. After dropping Joel off at home, driver Keith steers the car “To the rez . . To fuck with the injuns” (p. 10). Chapters 2 and 3 are uncomfortable to read as the content and language are racially charged. In chapter 2, Keith and Alan attack a group of boys on the reservation while narrator Rob seems to stay out of it. Chapter 3 brings retaliation from the group of boys attacked, resulting in Alan’s death. The remaining chapters focus on the investigation into who killed Alan, on Rob, Keith and two First Nations boys who were involved in the fray ‘paying their dues’ through 100 hours of community service, and on Rob’s trying to make amends with the First Nations boys.
This novel offers a lot in the way of ‘teachables’. For instance, the vocabulary in the novel could lead to vocab studies in the classroom (ex. ‘Sneered’, ‘sparsely’, ‘incarceration’), and literary devices (ex. hyperbole, foreshadowing) are also present. Character analysis would also be easily accomplished with the varied characters.
On a deeper level, Up North would allow for discussion of racism and intolerance. There are several notable passages in the novel which could lead to discussion, or journal/personal reflection writing. As an example, narrator Rob explains that he doesn’t see or judge people for their heritage:
Of course I saw people’s heritage. Of course I knew that my friend Moe was from the Middle East, Jaden was black, and Finn was from Ireland. It was part of them. How they looked. Their culture. But it wasn’t everything. (Pp. 69-70)
First Nations character Duncan furthers this idea when he says “We’re individuals. People. You don’t have to treat us like a group. Take a person as he is” (p. 76). In conjunction, these and other similar passages can lead to meaningful discussions about ‘real people’, global events, about “respect. About community. About understanding differences and finding similarities” (p. 38), and even about students’ own personal identities.
Outside the classroom, Up North would appeal to reluctant readers or readers who like fast-paced books with cliffhangers and who can handle liberal use of ‘language’ (ex. ‘Shit’, ‘dick move’) and racial slurs (ex. ‘Tonto’, ‘injuns’ ‘ savages’).
Even with the racial tension, language and illicit acts (underage drinking, the attack, murder), Up North is a very good novel that leaves readers thinking about their own views on such things and acknowledging the importance of acceptance and of being good people.
Karyn Miehl, a mother of two and a secondary school English teacher, lives in Kingsville, ON.
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