May 08, 2012

Crush. Candy. Corpse.

by Sylvia McNicoll
219 pp.
Ages 12+

Community service hours are a chore for many high school students. These hours, usually about 40, are spent volunteering in hospitals, seniors' homes, schools, food banks, etc., learning compassion and building a sense of community while developing the volunteerism we generally accept as civilized. Even those kids who are determined that it will be a miserable experience must complete, even begrudgingly, those forty hours if they intend to graduate from high school.

Sonja Ehret, sixteen, endearingly nicknamed Sunny by her grandmother, is assigned to help out at Paradise Manor, with those long-term care residents suffering with Alzheimer's. Sunny is a pretty good kid. She may look a little wild with her pink streaked hair, and she does sneak around behind her parents' backs with Donovan, 19, for whom shoplifting seems to be a vocation. And she sometimes blurts things out without thinking, like on her first day at Paradise Manor, when she is already late because her bus takes a detour because of a busted sewer line. When she mentions a smell at Paradise Manor, she makes a justifiable connection that it must be the result of a sewer line break too. Unfortunately, the bitter receptionist, Mrs. Johnson, never forgets Sunny's offensive faux pas regarding the smell which is actually the result of a resident soiling himself. After that, Mrs. Johnson sees all Sunny's actions as mistakes or flaws, even those which Sunny chooses to do because of her compassion for the residents.

In Sunny's journal, a requirement for her volunteering credit, she may sound whiny in her earlier entries about her time and activities at Paradise Manor. But soon enough, Sunny is speaking a little German (picked up from her grandmother before she passed) to encourage a lonely resident, Johann, to eat. Of course, those who already scorn Sunny see her feeding Johann too quickly or too much at a time or putting him in jeopardy of choking. This is especially unfortunate for Sunny when Helen Demers, the grandmother of fellow teen volunteer Cole, dies from choking on hard candies that she isn't supposed to eat because she is a diabetic. And Sunny is charged with manslaughter because of her death.

Mrs. Johnson insists that Sunny's Crush on Cole, who always gives his grandmother an unauthorized caramel Candy at the end of his visit, compelled her to help Helen Demers (i.e., the story's Corpse) in an effort to help Cole discharge his promise to end his grandmother's life when the Alzheimer's has progressed too far. Since Sunny returns to help out at Paradise Manor after she has completed her 40 hours of service, the fact that she is even implicated in Helen's death seems far-fetched, except when her actions, short journal entries and stray comments (out of context) are brought into evidence.

My banal synopsis of Crush. Candy. Corpse. does not do justice to Sylvia McNicoll's captivating story of Sunny's transforming relationships with Cole and the residents at Paradise Manor. I was lured into Sunny' story as she, the narrator, presents her actions and recollections in an honest manner. But it is most disheartening to realize that her story also demonstrates how snapshots of our actions can be used to represent unfairly the totality of our behaviour. For example, regardless of Sunny's motivations and the encouragement she receives from Cole, his mother goes ballistic after Sunny gives Helen Demers pink highlights. Instead of acknowledging her mother-in-law's wish for the highlights or Cole's suggestion that Sunny get the money from his grandmother, Cole's mom focuses on the humiliation she believes Sunny intended rather than the pleasure Sunny aspired to provide by honouring Helen's request.

Sylvia McNicoll gets Sunny's voice perfect, introducing the narrator as a teen who can make questionable decisions (as we all do when inexperienced) but who has the capacity to see beyond her initial assessments and amend her own actions and beliefs accordingly. I would be proud to have Crush. Candy. Corpse.'s Sunny as my granddaughter or caregiver to a family member knowing that she would bring the foibles of youth with the insight and compassion of a humanitarian and I would cheer for her throughout her trial and beyond. Sunshine like Sunny should not be eclipsed.

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