CM . . .
. Volume XXI Number 26. . . .March 13, 2015
Into the Wasteland.
Markham, ON: Red Deer Press, 2014.
174 pp., trade pbk., ePub & pdf, $12.95 (pbk.).
ISBN 978-0-88995-522-6 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-55244-336-1 (ePub), ISBN 978-1-55244-337-8 (pdf).
Grades 10-12 / Ages 15-17.
Review by Gillian Lapenskie.
While writing this review, it occurred to me that the novel Into the Wasteland is a bit like the tardis from Doctor Who: its size is small, but once inside its cover, readers will find a multi-dimensional world. Lesley Choyce, the author, covers a lot of territory and some heavy subject matter in this diminutive book.
The protagonist of Into the Wasteland is Dixon, a mentally-ill high school student who has stopped taking his meds because they make him “feel dead to the world.” Without them, he has sunshiny, good days…and also dark ones. His condition is never clearly revealed; at some moments, I was convinced he was bi-polar (in particular because his mother seems to be, and he wonders about a possible genetic connection); at other times, he seems depressed and perhaps bordering on schizophrenic. Eventually I realized that it doesn’t matter what Dixon’s diagnosis is because having it undefined makes his experiences seem more universal for readers, and thus it may be easier for readers to form a connection with Dixon.
The opening of the novel, however, puts readers on the defensive: Dixon is pissed off at so many people that he includes a list of them, and he comes across as being both aggressive and a bit rambly. He claims more than once that he is the only sane person in an insane world which, of course, makes the reader suspicious. Dixon likes to use his advanced vocabulary, but in other phrases his voice is quite different, creating an inconsistent effect at first. Dixon’s tone soon evens out, and, as a result, he becomes a more sympathetic character. He is a smart, articulate, sensitive kid, and I found myself wishing I could see into the future and know that he was going to be okay.
Dixon has a small, diverse group of friends/supporters who are perhaps vital to his survival. His best friend is Zeke, a charming pot-head skateboarder who loves paradoxes and women (no surprise that Dixon describes him as “one of a kind”). Sylvia is also important to Dixon, and although their friendship has a physical component, he doesn’t actually label her as his “girlfriend”. Both Sylvia and Dixon’s English teacher, Ms. Bartley, seem to have a good understanding of Dixon’s illness and are watchful but caring presences in his life. School is a tough place for Dixon because he feels different from everyone else, which, in turn, makes him a bit of a loner and thus a target. Outside of school, Dixon looks up to Fairweather Dave, a surfer/philosopher who gave up a lucrative existence to live in his camper van by the shore. Dave provides some of the philosophy embedded in the novel, and he helps trigger Dixon’s reflection on his own life’s journey. Dixon is thoughtful without seeming “angsty”, a stance that I think adolescent readers will appreciate.
In addition to the philosophy, the novel is enriched by the inclusion of poetry. Contained in the novel’s title is “The Wasteland”, and each chapter starts with a few key lines from T. S. Eliot’s famous poem. Dixon calls him “Tough Shit Eliot”, but his poetry clearly speaks to Dixon and the dark visions he has of his own “private wasteworld”. It gives the reader a good understanding of the conundrum faced by many mentally-ill people, particularly when they come to a stressful time in their lives. With medication, they can be “normal”, but without it, they can be who they “really” are:
What was happening to me was what had been labeled the “kindling effect”. One stressful thing after another. (Isn’t that the definition of life, dude?) Like a fool, I had chosen fucking T.S. Eliot and his damned “Waste Land” poem to write an essay on for Ms. Bartley…Eliot’s lilacs bloom out of the “dead land” and I was haunted by that dead land. It reminded me of what the meds had done to me and why I would not go back there. The lilacs of my imagination had bloomed once I left the drugs and the dead land and came back to the euphoric world of Dixon Carter, boy genius, hope of civilization, and poet of the future.
The poem seem to be emphatically telling me that Eliot was one of my tribe, though, and his vision was a dark one. I thought I was brave enough, strong enough for such dark journeys, and if I could have perhaps kept it inside that little book, I might have been okay.
Into the Wasteland is an unusual novel that I wouldn’t say has really wide appeal, but it is memorable, and it may just help students through a dark time in their lives. It’s not preachy, and it deals sensitively with Dixon’s rich interior life. There are references to drug use that may make it less appropriate for younger readers; also, the novel takes a sudden and surprising turn with the death of one of the main characters. Grief makes Dixon’s descent into depression inevitable, but, in the end, it is coping with loss that gives him reasons to see his way into the future.
I recently criticized another novel for including a mentally-ill young adult character who turned into a two-dimensional horror-movie cliché. I certainly can’t say the same about Choyce’s treatment of the same subject matter. Dixon reminds me of two boys whom I’ve taught in the last few years who, like him, are clever and engaging young men struggling to manage the tough task of “seeming normal” at school. One of them, like Dixon, was also dealing with a mentally-ill parent. And all this while having the courage to seek help and try living life, at least for a while, on medication. Many thanks to Lesley Choyce for creating a novel that provides a relatable character for them and their friends, because, as Zeke says, “We’re all connected. We just don’t see it.”
Gillian Lapenskie is a teacher-librarian at Barrie Central Collegiate in Barrie, ON.
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