Apparently I haven’t been crying enough, so reading The Way Back Home, by Allan Stratton, was necessary.
I admit—I’m always a bit skeptical when male adults write teenage girl characters. Girls are difficult, complex and simple at the same time. Boys don’t understand them: why should grown men? I’ll give Stratton plenty credit for capturing some of the hysteria that girls can exhibit, especially in the age 13 to 15 category. Teenage girls are notoriously unreliable narrators in real life, not because they are purposefully lying but because they are dramatic and never want to look bad. And the drama is real.
Main character Zoe has an attitude but Stratton gives her an out. Her prettier, more popular, and way meaner cousin is darn good at manipulating the adults around her and blaming Zoe for everything. Adults gobble it up. I guess the quote about assuming beauty is goodness applies here.
“It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.” – Leo Tolstoy.
Some sort of subversion of this quote as an idea appears in a lot of young adults novels; usually so bluntly that we wonder how people believe it. It seems so absurd. Oh, wait. People fall for this every time. Moving on.
Frustrated with her parents, Zoe is extremely close to her grandmother, Granny Bird. Granny Bird is her best friend. And Granny Bird is starting to forget things.
This is where the crying starts. Because Granny Bird does the things my grandmother did before she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. The constant phone calls (sometimes in the middle of the night), repeated conversations, the paranoia that people are spying on her, hiding money—it’s all familiar. It hurts to remember. Like Zoe, I ignored what was happening. Unlike Zoe, I exhibited less compassion than I could have.
Stratton never uses the word—Alzheimer’s Disease—even though he doesn’t shy away from any tough subject. He covers extreme bullying (verbal and physical), poverty, mental illness (anxiety), gender identity, dying. Growing up. The works. It’s a lot. Cue crying, round two.
Zoe refuses to believe there is anything wrong with her grandmother at all. Desperate to keep her granny out of a seniors care home, Zoe kidnaps her and hops on a train to Toronto to find her missing uncle, who she hopes will be their salvation.
Reading younger protagonists as you get older always causes cognitive dissonance. I usually end up empathizing with the adults, who really are doing their best. In this book, they are overwhelmed, struggling and genuinely wanting to balance everything and be kind. They understand what’s happening to Granny Bird. They’re flawed and trying. But I remember when I would have sided resolutely with the teenage girl, no matter how angry and bad at communicating she was. I might not have even thought she was acting out. Perspectives change.
Zoe’s does. And her parents manage to change theirs too.
Allan Stratton appeared at Events 20 (The Jungles of Adolescence) and 25 (Lighting Out) at the 2017 Vancouver Writers Festival.