March 17, 2012

Middle of Nowhere

by Caroline Adderson
Groundwood Books
214 pp.
Ages 8-12

Nowhere is a place like no other.  It seems endless, remote and isolated (even more than the beautiful British Columbia of Middle of Nowhere).  If you have hold of someone’s hand when in nowhere, it doesn’t seem so bad.  But what if the hand is absent, and someone else is practically pulling off your hand looking for support?  Do you let nowhere swallow you or do you look for a new hand? Can you choose poorly or is every option viable?

Curtis Schlanka is only 12 but he seems like a boy who has already lived through a lot.  He was five-and-a-half years old when his mother took off after her boyfriend, Gerry, leaving Curtis’ kindergarten teacher to contact Social Services.  At the Pennypackers’ foster home, he had to endure nasty bullying from their nine-year-old son, Brandon, until Curtis’ mother returned and proved she was a fit mother to her new baby, Artie, and was able to take Curtis home too.  She was working hard at getting her high-school equivalency while working the night shift at Pay-N-Save, and doing her best to provide for her two sons. 

So when she doesn’t come home, Curtis is pretty sure, ten out of ten, that she’ll be back.  Coincidentally, the elderly woman in the house next door, Mrs. Burt, injures her hip and recruits Curtis to run some errands for her.  Mrs. Burt and Curtis soon recognize the mutual benefit of helping each other.  After the police are called in (since their apartment’s rent didn’t get paid), the boys stay hidden at Mrs. Burt’s, aiming to evade Social Services.  Happily, they avoid the authorities while helping Mrs. Burt too, who enjoys mothering the boys, especially five-and-a-half year old Artie, whose screaming and crying fits subside with her TLC. 

With school almost finished, Mrs. Burt suggests going up to her cabin for a holiday, all the while assuring Curtis that he can keep trying to contact his mom should she return.   So, in her 1957 Chevy Bel Air, they travel to the remote cabin where the boys are nourished by the sun, Mrs. Burt’s great cooking and lots of activity, including swimming, fishing and gardening.  While Artie grows emotionally closer to Mrs. Burt, Curtis begins to suspect that she has her own agenda, confirmed when summer turns to fall and they do not return for school.

As manipulative as Mrs. Burt may sound, she is nothing more than an elderly woman who lives on her own and isn’t very mobile but refuses help or even advice from her “Big Shot” daughter in Toronto.  The boys’ missing mother provides Mrs. Burt with an opportunity to be valuable and in control again.  Mrs. Burt never harms the boys, only cares for them as she would her own grandchildren, but Curtis realizes that they are relinquishing control to her, giving up the opportunity to connect with their mom (which is all they wanted when avoiding Social Services). 

The nowhere of the boys’ lives could be the remoteness of the cabin, as Curtis realizes when there is nowhere to go for help; it could be the untethered nature of their relationship, which provides them only with superficial supports of food, shelter and parenting; or it could be a temporal nowhere, neither at the beginning or middle or end, never knowing how many sleeps until Mom returns.   Ultimately Curtis realizes that Mrs. Burt is in a nowhere of her own: between a life filled with working in a lumber camp, caring for her family, and being an independent woman to one of reliance, immobility, seclusion and death.  Caroline Adderson’s storytelling emotionally engages the reader in Curtis’, Artie’s and Mrs. Burt’s fears of their nowheres, while offering hope about the nowhere in which the boys’ mother exists.  Curtis’ voice is distinct, both trusting and hesitant, well-balanced with the tone of the narrative, as he learns that nowhere is just a product of a flawed perception.  Nowhere is always somewhere – the chances are ten out of ten.

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