June 17, 2012

A Troublesome Boy

by Paul Vasey
Groundwood Books/House of Anasi
225 pp.
Ages 14+

Usually, alongside my review, I like to place the book cover art in some context that plays with the book's theme or plot.  For A Troublesome Boy by Paul Vasey, this is completely unnecessary.  The shadow of a young child, the crucifix, the dark cross of window frames against some light, the title echoing as a shadow parallel to the lines of the frames - the cover is complete and perfect.  Sadly.

A Troublesome Boy of the title is fourteen-year-old Teddy Clemson who is shipped off to St. Ignatius Academy for Boys in August 1959, courtesy of his mother's verbally-abusive boyfriend, Henry, who concurs with the school's assessment of Teddy as problematic.  So begins a new phase in Teddy's life, beyond a childhood of fond family memories and then one of oblivion, after his dad took off and his mom took up with Henry.  This newest chapter of his life is the story of A Troublesome Boy.

After being introduced, by the principal, Father Stewart, to the school's expectations for respect, courtesy and hard work as well as to the punishing time-out room (an unlit broom closet with a straight-backed chair and no inside handle), Teddy meets Tim Cooper, a bespectacled fourteen-year-old with a history of break-and-enter, foster care and a passion for Wordsworth's poetry.  Known as Cooper to all, Tim is soon seen as a heroic rebel, questioning everything and everyone and constantly getting detentions and extensive periods in the time-out room.  While Teddy breaks a few of the rules himself, like going to the boiler room (the domain of Rozey, the simple handyman) to have a cigarette, he quickly recognizes and becomes heedful of the relentless and punitive nature of several of the fathers, particularly the violent English teacher Father Sullivan, and Father Prince who regularly watches the boys while they shower and routinely coaxes Cooper away from the dorm in the middle of the night.

When Saturday free times come around, Teddy and then Cooper join Rozey for drives, discussions, cribbage, often at his old farm house, and fishing, giving Cooper "the best day I ever had" (pg. 118). While enduring and questioning his role in the sexual abuse perpetrated by Father Prince, Cooper finds salvation in the boys' weekly visits with Rozey, who shares stories from his life, giving Cooper and Teddy some understanding about relationships, particularly family.  Giving Cooper his first real experience with comfort and concern, he proclaims of Rozey,  
"...where's he been all my life?  How come I got to be fourteen before someone actually went out of his way to do things for me?...What I wouldn't give to be his son.  I could've been a great son if I'd ever had the chance." (pg.160)
For the boys, St. Iggy's becomes an endurance test as they consider the possibility of running away to the beaches of British Columbia.  But, the continued abuse by the priests and Cooper's escalating distress, including for Teddy who is invited to "talk" with Father Prince too, takes the story through unimaginable tragedies, relieved only by the occasional driblet of compassion from Rozey and those outside the Catholic residential school system.

Paul Vasey's admission in his About the Author notes that he is a boarding-school survivor, as well as a board member for a mental health facility for youth, may reveal the source of A Troublesome Boy's legitimacy and poignancy.  The profanity of the boys' words and lives will be blasphemous to some readers, perhaps repulsed by the potent indecency of it all, but Paul Vasey pens their story with a light craft, emphasizing the constructs of their emotions rather than detailed accounts of the abuse.  This story should leave the reader physically repulsed by the crimes committed under the guise of reform and support while emotionally sobbing for those who have been forsaken and know it.

1 comment:

  1. I can imagine that not only is this an enlightening read, it must have been somewhat catartic for the atuhor.