June 04, 2012

How to Tend a Grave

by Jocelyn Shipley
Great Plains Teens Fiction
178 pp.
Ages 14+

Death stings the victim only once, but those left behind feel the pain of loss with every passing memory.
~ Unknown

The grief experienced after the loss of a loved one can be excruciating but if it is embedded with secrets and shame and confusion, it can be unmanageable and life-altering.  In How to Tend a Grave, two young teens, Liam Hall and Harmony Trahern, experience such grief and, though they are not acquainted with each other, grief will prompt their introduction and necessitate their interaction.

Though Liam knows his mother was an escort, it isn't until after she is killed in a hit-and-run accident and he must leave Toronto to live with his grandfather, Gully, in Dunlane, that Liam begins to learn how her choices have shaped their lives.  Though Liam's mom, Monica, hated Dunlane and had been ostracized by her own mother for having Liam out of wedlock, Dunlane is where Gully has his daughter buried, next to her mother at Mount Hope & Glory Cemetery.

Liam visits the cemetery daily to chat with his mom, to cry and to try to understand revelations about his mom that contradict what she had told him.  His cemetery visits, though, bring him under the scrutiny of local teen thug, Youth, and his nasty girlfriend, Crime, and their gang, Y4C, who claim the cemetery as their own.  Shrewdly, they will allow him to visit the cemetery if he joins their gang, thus becoming a 4, and following Youth's demands.  Though Liam recognizes their posturing as childish, their violent acts are very real and terrorizing the community. While Gully, a corrections officer, advises Liam to avoid the gang members, Liam, now called Ghoul Guy by Y4C, finds, "He's starved for belonging.  And hungry for the rush." (pg. 118)

Harmony Trahern, not yet sixteen, also visits the cemetery, recording in a journal the epitaphs on the gravestones of dead babies.  In this notebook, she also addresses entries to Rue, the baby she conceived with Jordan,  before Harmony recognized what a mistake it was hanging with him and his new group, Y4C.  It is during her visits to the cemetery that Harmony notices Liam and introduces herself.  They are instantly attracted to one another, though they share very little about themselves, both fearful that their choices related to Y4C and family history will come between them.

When Liam's and Harmony's stories merge, the progression of their grief to acceptance should not be taken as a conclusion to the process.  Liam's mother still lied to him and made choices that were perhaps suitable for her but definitely not for him, condemning him to much unresolved confusion.  He's fortunate to have Gully whose fortitude and experience, as well as gardening prowess, have prepared him well to help Liam through his grief.  Similarly, Harmony may be coming to terms with her grief for her lost child and even the nature of the loss of her virginity, but her parents will need to acknowledge their own grieving and role in their daughter's loss.  Just recreating earlier family activities, like an outing to the auction, is not sufficient to ensure their understanding of the loss.  As such, Jocelyn Shipley's title of How to Tend to a Grave is comprehensive in that tending to a grave can refer to caring for the grave, contributing to it (as in having a responsibility) or inclining to it (as in reaching for it).

By merging two different story-lines, Liam's told in third-person and Harmony's first-person journal entries, Jocelyn Shipley adds depth and texture to her plotting, allowing the reader to see Dunlane and Y4C from different perspectives at different times.  Perhaps because this reader finds the need for justice compulsory when dealing with criminal activities, the unknown fate of Youth and Crime is disappointing.  However, knowing that Liam has Gully in his life and they both accept each other as they are and that Liam has made a mature connection with Harmony, the promise that is Liam's future is sufficient to ensure a sense of resolution and hope.  Moreover, knowing that the threat to the community is something that must be dealt with from within, not by avoidance, Liam demonstrates that he is prepared to become part of the community that his mother forsake.  It seems, as many claim, that everything does tend to work out in the end.  Jocelyn Shipley ensures that it does appropriately in How to Tend a Grave.

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