Since my fairly recent revelation that Australian YA is amazing (Margo Lanagan, Markus Zusak, Melina Marchetta, Simmone Howell, Gabrielle Williams, etc), I have been thinking about other non-British, non-American Anglophone literatures. I finally got it together and started creating a list of Canadian children's/YA books to read, primarily culled from Canadian literary awards sites like the Canadian Children's Book Centre.
My most recent trek to the library got me two titles by Catherine Austen, both of which I have now read. Walking Backward, Austen's debut middle-grade (MG) novel, was quite good, much better than its cover copy suggested it might be. The narrator of the book, Josh, is a 12-year-old whose mom has recently died in a car accident (she was distracted by a small snake in the car; she had an intense snake-phobia, and rammed her car into a tree at high speed); Josh has a four-and-a-half year old brother, Sammy, and a seemingly-absent(minded) father who is "coping" with his wife's death by building a time machine in the basement. Josh is a bright kid - his mom was a university professor of medieval literature who read him Beowulf and Grail myths when he was small - and his narrative is peppered with facts and information, often - but not solely - about religious practices surrounding death. Josh is not searching for faith, but he is cycling through the various practices, thinking about applying them to his own grieving process, while trying to take care of the house and all the "mom" things, along with consoling his little brother and himself.
Walking Backward isn't laugh-out-loud funny, but neither is it weepy-sad. Josh's sense of loss comes through loud and clear, but so do all his anger, confusion, irritation, at having lost not just the relationship with his mom, but the person in the family who ran the household. Josh's dad has always been useless, Josh reveals (he mentions, specifically, things like cleaning the cats' litterbox, and doing laundry and cooking, as well as things like scheduling Sammy's kindergarten orientation and buying new back-to-school clothes), and so Josh is picking up the slack.
Because the book is written journal-style (and is meant to be the journal "prescribed" by the psychiatrist the family is seeing), we have to do some reading between the lines to get a sense of how and what Josh really is, and those moments of revelation are particularly effective. For instance, when Josh blurts out to various people "Did you put the snake in my mom's car?" or when he notes that he wrote to the Darwin Awards people, asking (worrying) if his mom's death qualifies her for one.
Walking Backward is a fairly short book, but for all it's seemingly sad subject material, is very charming and enjoyable. Austen handles Josh's voice really well; he's smart, he's knowledgeable, but he's also 12, so he worries about his little brother being pegged as a weirdo, and whether Karen, who kissed him right before going off to summercamp, still likes him. There's a sense of humor, not exactly a lightheartedness, but something akin to it, underlying Josh's voice: he sees the odd and the interesting and the annoying and the sad and considers it all in his assessment of the world around him. There's also a great deal of serious thought about how to honor and remember the dead we love, and Josh's trial and error through the mourning practices of a number of religions until he and his brother and dad ultimately find ways to memorialize and memorize their mom that are entirely their own.
The other Austen book I read was the Canadian Children's Book Centre's 2012 Best YA - All Good Children. It's quite a good dystopic novel that manages to avoid some of the cliches and tropes we're seeing a lot of these days in the boom of YA dystopias. It wasn't until the very end of Austen's book, actually, that I realized that it's thematically (and even situationally) quite similar to Pam Bachorz's very good YA novel Candor. I'll say now that I really liked both All Good Children and Candor, and thought they share a similar basic premise - controlling children's minds to ensure obedience and a certain kind of behavior - they handle it differently, and more importantly, contextualize it differently.
All Good Children has some good futuristic quirks - fuel is so expensive that not many people own cars anymore; cars have been largely converted to "housing" for the thousands of poor people of New Middletown, where Max, his mom, and his little sister Ally live. New Middletown, it turns out, is a company town: Chemrose, a company which - among other things - runs massive geriatric housing units, one of which employs Max's mom. New Middletown is racially interesting; Max's mom is dark-skinned, and his dad (who died a few years earlier) was white. Max and Ally are definitely dark but lighter than their mom, but what's especially interesting is that - narrated by Max - "white" ends up appearing as a kind of pejorative. Sometimes non-white skin colors are described or noted, but white always is; it's a small but nice touch of defamiliarization and rearrangement of contemporary racial/social practice.
Max is a bit of a jerk - he's not quite 16, he's a bit mouthy, he loves to screw around in class - pranks, jokes, making fun of people, tormenting substitutes, graffiti (including stealing art supplies from the school). He's also not above taking advantage of Ally's "slowness" - she's not severely mentally disabled, but she's definitely slow; she's also only six years old - early on there's a scene when Max messes with Ally to steal her bag of chips on a flight home. It's not until quite late in the novel that Max realizes that his actions may be negatively affecting people; Austen's smart and clever enough not to make this some huge life-changing revelation, more a moment of "wow, I never thought of that," accompanied by a sense of some unease and slightly guilt or regret. But that's not some huge Life Lesson Max needs to learn, because basically he's a good kid who does care about his little sister (he walks her to school every day, takes her to the park, humors her quirks) and his friends.
New Middletown has started something called Nesting, an acronym for a program that involves drugging the city's children into submissiveness. All the kids, from the little ones through the oldest high schoolers, receive the shot, which is still in early phases; there are a number of rather grotesque physical and mental reactions to the shot, especially in kids who already take prescriptions. Through sheer luck - being out of town to attend a funeral - Ally has missed the first week of school, when the kids her age received their shots. Max and Ally - through their own trickery and their mom's work as a nurse - are able to avoid getting the shots, remaining "unzombiefied."
All Good Children is quite an interesting setup - New Middletown is one large section in what appears to be a significantly reordered political and geographical world. The city is essentially locked down within itself, and though we don't get much detail, it seems to be owned and run by the Chemrose company. Gradually, shady bits of information about Chemrose make their way into the narrative, along with other things: curtailed civil rights, widespread surveillance, a variety of untruths about the outside world aimed at building up New Middletown's nationalism as well as enabling the surveillance and other restrictions - and ultimately, the drugging of the children.
The novel is a great examination about the early days of a major shift in politics and policing, and control of the populace; we see all the slow-to-catch-on folks, the disbelievers, the conspiracy theorists, the resisters, the collaborators in all their many forms. Max, who has always been a bit out of control, is a perfect candidate for narrator and resister against the ultimate scheme in discipline; he's also an artist, and one of his works becomes hugely important for a variety of reasons in a super-nice touch by Austen.
One of the other aspects of All Good Children that I loved is its relative lack of romance narrative. There's a girl who Max is interested in, but she's a fairly minor character and in fact vanishes from the text by the midpoint. Max's energies are focused around himself, his mom and sister, and his best friend Dallas (who is himself a fascinating character: he's an "ultimate," an expensive genetically engineered kid who by all rights should be a golden boy, but his repulsive father loathes him, and he's on the receiving end of a good deal of emotional, if not physical, abuse. Dallas has occasional episodes of blank red rage that frighten even emotionally-mercurial Max, but then he also has moments of Golden Boy glory. He's a pretty great character in a lot of ways).
Max isn't some perfect guy out to save the day; he's essentially selfish (as is our old pal Katniss Everdeen), protecting the people he cares about the most and not worrying so much about the rest. But he is made deeply uneasy by life in the zombie world of the "Nested" kids, which does give him a bit of a sense of understanding or empathy of the larger stakes at play. Max never loses his edge of jerkishness, either; he gets angry easily, he's pissed at his mom and the world for "allowing" the drugging, he gets snarky with Ally, with Dallas, with his neighbor Xavier. But rather than pitch his story as one of overcoming his juvenile jerkishness, or one where that jerkishness saves the day, Austen wisely allows it to be one component of Max's character, one aspect that is accompanied by many others. We don't like him in spite of, or because of his jerkishness; we like him because he has a whole host of likeable or interesting characteristics, which - as in real, non-ink-based humans - help make up for the jerky moments.
All Good Children makes for a very compelling and thought-provoking read, as well as being one that's simply enjoyable and gripping for all the reasons any good dystopia is enjoyable and gripping: a plot that moves, characters that are well-crafted and engaging, high stakes, a well-developed other world (ie, the world of the dystopia), a good balance of story and philosophizing or politicizing. It was a terrific read, and a book I'd like to own (which is pretty high recommendation from me, since my book-buying budget is miniscule).
Austen definitely ranks highly on my list of Good Contemporary Authors, and I will be looking out more of her books in the future.