CM . . .
. Volume XXIV Number 7. . . .October 20, 2017
The Disappearing Boy.
Halifax, NS: Nimbus, 2017.
192 pp., trade pbk., $12.95.
Grades 5-7 / Ages 10-12.
Review by Rob Bittner.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
Turning the corner to his new house, Neil shivered and heaved up his backpack. Ottawa was a lot colder that Vancouver. Not so long ago, he’d been skateboarding with his friends in the sunshine at Stanley Park. Here, although it was only October, a cold wind seemed to be blowing all the time. People hurried along, heads down, clutching their briefcases, listening to their headphones. Even the dogs looked like they just wanted to get home.
He stopped at the townhouse and stared up at the red-brick front of his new home. It was okay, he supposed. It was one in an identical row of six, bigger and grander than the little bungalow they’d left behind in Vancouver.... He wondered if this house would ever feel like a home.
As its cover suggests, The Disappearing Boy centres on 13-year-old Neil MacLeod, a rather impulsive young man with an emotional hair-trigger. Neil’s mother, Sasha, recently moved the two of them from Vancouver to Ottawa to be closer to her own mother, Margaret. What Neil wants to know is, Why? Whenever he asks about who his father was or where he is, Sasha avoids answering. After having a tantrum and running away from home, Neil ends up finding a new friend in the girl living next door to Margaret. Unfortunately, Neil’s disappearance drives Sasha into a panic, and she crashes her car, ending up in the hospital. Feeling incredibly guilty, Neil briefly manages to behave himself until he discovers what his mother and grandmother have been trying to keep secret: Sasha is a transwoman. In his confusion and frustration, Neil runs away again, except this time all the way to Saint John, NB, where his estranged grandfather, Ken, lives and runs a stable. What Neil doesn’t know before arriving is that Ken left long ago because of Sasha’s decision to transition. After more drama and increasingly unstable behaviour, Neil and Sasha manage to find the beginnings of a happy ending for their newly understood family.
What this novel does well is examine the consequences of holding onto secrets, along with the aftermath of impulsive and immature behaviour. Both mother and son are very much at fault, what with Sasha hiding from her son for so long and avoiding his questions about his “missing” father. Of course, the fact that Margaret and Ken are holding their own history of emotional baggage, with Ken holding a strong grudge against Sasha for something that was and continues not to be her fault. Ken’s hyper-masculine attitudes led to alienation from his family, and his disgust with Sasha’s self-identification shows his total lack of understanding and care for her as a human being. The lack of resolution between Ken and Sasha is left unresolved, which is both realistic and incredibly sad. Neil’s emotional stability is also somewhat realistic (teenage boys, right?); however it is also frustrating to witness him fly off the handle and disregard logic again and again and again.
Now, continuing on with Neil, I must say that one of the unfortunate aspects of the book is the very fact that it does focus on Neil, using Sasha and her trans identity as a catalyst for all of the drama. It is her failure to tell Neil about herself that leads to her ending up in the hospital, and it is her ending up in the hospital that leads Neil to find old pictures of her as a young child, assigned male at birth. At one point, Neil even thinks, “Sasha had lied to him his whole life. Thanks to her, his entire life was a fake.” This attention on Neil’s life somehow becoming pointless because of Sasha’s “revelation” is concerning, but not out of the realm of truth when it comes to real-life attitudes of some toward trans parents. Neil, then, remains the focus, but it is Sasha who is the focal point around with all the action and drama revolves.
Like much early youth literature with trans themes, The Disappearing Boy unfortunately focuses on the cisgender characters and their reactions to a trans individual, much of which is usually negative. The turning point in this novel, as with early narratives, requires the trans character to be apologetic and to understand that it’s her role to help others learn and come to terms with her very existence. While it is true that she probably should have talked to Neil sooner, Sasha’s existence as a trans person is largely ignored except where it concerns other people’s reactions: Ken’s disgust, Margaret’s eventual acceptance, and Neil’s emotional rollercoaster through the course of the novel. The ending at least allows Sasha to find someone she likes and might perhaps be able to love.
What is interesting is that nowhere in the novel is the word “trans” or “transgender” used to talk about Sasha. Instead, mis-gendering on behalf of Neil and Ken is what serves to remind the reader that Sasha was raised male until later in her life. This mis-gendering (she/he, calling Sasha “him,” or even “freak”), while realistic to a degree, could be seen as triggering to trans readers and confusing to cisgender readers who are not educated in areas of gender and identity. Though Tilson’s writing style is strong and fluid, and the pacing of the novel is steady, due to the troubling issues around Sasha’s trans identity, I can’t recommend this title without hoping that a teacher, librarian, or parent will at least be on hand to discuss things with a young reader.
Recommended with Reservations.
Rob Bittner has a PhD in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies (SFU), and is also a graduate of the MA in Children’s Literature program at The University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC. He loves reading a wide range of literature, but particularly stories with diverse depictions of gender and sexuality.
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University of Manitoba
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