June 10, 2012

The Prisoner of Snowflake Falls

by John Lekich
Orca Book Publishers
280 pp.
Ages 11+

Reviewed from ebook 

If I had to be the victim of a crime, I'd hope to be burgled by a thief like fifteen-year-old Henry Thelonius Holloway.  Even though he knows how to pick a lock and the other arts of thieving courtesy of his Uncle Andy and cronies, Henry would probably only borrow the car (and return it with gas), steal only food that he needed to prevent starvation, never steal anything of great sentimental value, and even tidy up my breakfast dishes.  After all, how many thieves do you know who, rather than take a wad of bills from an envelope earmarked for a graduation gift, add a couple of bucks to increase the fund? Exactly.  Henry's one of a kind. He's very principled, neat, and compassionate. Even if he is a thief.

Unfortunately, Henry is also young and an orphan.  After his mother died from cancer when he was nine years of age, he lived with his Uncle Andy and then Uncle Andy's friends when Uncle Andy was in prison.  But when everyone who could care for him is in prison or has taken off, Henry finds the means to live in a tree-house, supplementing his meagre existence with visits to his regular "benefactors" for food and such. It's only when Henry slips up in a ruse to reassure his uncle (who keeps tabs on him from prison) that he is alright that Henry is sent to Snowflake Falls' Second Chance program.

Placed in the care of the Wingates, Henry becomes part of a chaotic family of oddities.  Harrison Wingate is the very particular owner of Wingate's department store, desperate to keep the store from going under, courtesy of Biggie's Bargin Barn. His wife, Theodora, tirelessly and unobtrusively, works to keep the family happy and the surfaces of their home scrubbed from Oscar's markings.  Oscar, not yet three, is known as a screamer and is delighted to share his voice with his new roommate (until the renovations on the guest room are completed).  Finally, there is eleven-year-old Charlotte, a brilliant and big-hearted manic talker, who is anxious to do good for others, including sharing her budding hair-cutting skills on Henry.

With his schedule of an early morning paper route (shamelessly conducted on Charlotte's small pink bike), work at Top Kow Burgers as the Grease Pig, volunteering (not) to read to Mr. Harley Howard, the near-blind and elderly richest man in town, and regular visits for counselling by Ms Penelope Pendergast, the Home Economics teacher, Henry should have no trouble keeping out of trouble.  And, with so many people involved in his life now, including the friendly strangers of Snowflake Falls, Henry can't seem to find the means or heart to escape, yet.

Compelled by Henry's letters, Uncle Andy heads to Snowflake Falls when released from prison, and everything changes. Joining thieves Cookie Collito and Wally Whispers, Uncle Andy plans on one last job, with Henry's help: robbing the whole town. With so much of himself invested in his new town (and so many in Snowflake Falls invested in him), Henry finds himself looking for ways to avoid hurting those for whom he cares.  By breaking his rule about forming attachments with people or places, he has put himself in an awkward position.  Prison would have been so much easier.

John Lekich's characters in The Prisoner of Snowflake Falls are the treasures that readers look for in great fiction.  They are unique and true to themselves, good or bad, and evolving.  Oscar may have been the downfall of the Second Chancers that came before Henry, but the little guy melts Henry's heart (or maybe he just shattered it with his excessive decibel output, snore or scream).  Charlotte verges on being an annoyance but she is desperate to seem normal and be accepted, the humble goal of many of us. It's similar for George who believes acceptance will come through distinction.  Theodora, Harrison, Harley and the others are more of the people with whom we share our lives, just quirkier and more of themselves.  As for Henry, our seemingly self-assured teen, he has been a work in progress from the times before his mother became ill.  He's astute enough to recognize what pleases others and what disappoints them, whether it is his mother, his uncle or the Wingates.  Henry's compassion, though often masked, makes him heroic, enduring the loneliness of losing his mother and being untethered, while still able to see the emotional needs of others often before his own physical needs.  Perhaps as his uncle proclaims, "Puzzles are a lot like life.  Once everything fits into place, there's nothing left to discover."  That's why Henry is still a work in progress.  While I had been hopeful for Henry to accept Snowflake Falls as his home, rather than his prison, John Lekich chose an alternate ending. Appropriately, even as The Prisoner of Snowflake Falls ends, I wonder how much of Henry is still to be discovered.

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