May 18, 2012

Cuts Like a Knife

by Darlene Ryan
Orca Book Publishers
109 pp.
Ages 14+

Anyone who believes that writing for children is far easier than writing fiction for adults has never written for children.  And those that believe that writing short, high-interest, low-vocabulary books for teens is a lark have never attempted to create the high-quality fiction of Orca Soundings, novels for teens reading between a Grade 2  and Grade 4.5 level.  (By the way, a Reading Level (RL) of 4.5 suggests the reading level of a child in the fifth month of their Grade 4 school year.) Of course, just because these books are geared to reluctant readers does not mean they are read exclusively by them.  Readers picking up a book like Cuts Like a Knife will read it for its contemporary and relevant story and characters with whom they will easily connect, regardless of the number of pages or syllables per word.

In Cuts Like a Knife, author Darlene Ryan focuses on the reluctance of teens to share their difficulties with each other as well as with those who might be able to help.  Mac may present herself as bold and fearless but, without parents and living with her grandmother until she passes away and then moving to live with an uncle with whom she doesn't seem to connect, Mac has a lot more going on than she is willing to share.  Daniel, the story's narrator, is just happy to be her friend, though he hopes for more.  When Mac shares herself with Daniel, then disappears, he suspects that she has run away again.  But, in his attempts to find her, Daniel discovers that she has been gifting her friends and important people in her life with items with which she would never part.

So begins Daniel's struggle to find Mac without informing on her, a sure way to lose her friendship.  Even as he becomes more frantic to find her and he clashes with those who purport to be her friends, Daniel cannot appreciate his need for some assistance, just as he suspects she needs help to deal with her troubles.

Though Cuts Like a Knife doesn't conclude with the happy ending of Daniel and Mac falling into each other's arms, the story resolves itself in a more believable manner, probably reflecting the more likely outcome of situations akin to Mac and Daniel's.  Moreover, Mac and Daniel are not the beautiful teens of most YA fiction, and for that most readers will be grateful  Though Daniel sees Mac as amazingly creative and intelligent, she can be caustic.  Although she always seems candid, Mac uses humour and brashness to avoid sentimentality and emotional interactions.  Daniel, on the other hand, sees himself as a wuss, feeling that he often backs down and is coddled by his mother.  But, in his desperate attempts to find Mac, Daniel is more fearless than he suspects, though he plays the role of a typical teenager well in rejecting his mother's offers of help.

Having the linear storyline characteristic of most Orca Soundings, Cuts Like a Knife works well in that Daniel's quest to find Mac is essentially unidirectional: find her, help her, save her.  He doesn't try to change people's views or create dramas of his own, though he could considering the individuals with whom he interacts on her behalf. Yet Darlene Ryan admirably ends the book not as reaching a resolution, but as accomplishing a major step forward in Daniel's relationship with Mac and with his mother, as well as Mac's relationship with herself and with her uncle.  But where those steps lead is up to Darlene Ryan and we hope that she accepts the challenge to let Mac and Daniel pursue those new stories wherever they may lead.

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