October 24, 2012

Not With a Bang

by Gail Sidonie Sobat
Magpie Books
118 pp.
Ages 14+
September 2012

While reading Not With a Bang, I felt as if I was holding a cousin of Elizabeth Smart's By Grand Central Station I Sat and Wept (1945) - a novella of such intensity and poetic intelligence that it does not spend the time drawing readers towards a climax but simply catapults us to it and keeps us there for the entire book.  Although the title of Gail Sidonie Sobat's newest book is derived from a line in the final stanza of T. S. Eliot's poem, The Hollow Men

"This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper" 

suggesting an ending of indifference, Not With a Bang harbours no such apathy, but rather presents its beginning, middle and end with zeal for living.

After he is charged and convicted of a crime, seventeen-year-old Jan is instructed to stay away from Snake, the drug dealer with whom he'd been associating, and given community service at the Glamorrah Seniors' Hospice.  Although his community service seems tortuous at first, Jan finds himself curious about his charge, seventy-two-year-old Al Coxworth, a man who seems to know a lot about music, poetry and life in general.  More importantly, Al is the man "who bothered to listen to him." (pg. 56)  Without even noticing, Jan begins to appreciate and recognize the validity and value of Al's comments and opinions, taking Jan from an angry, self-absorbed teen (still dealing with his father's infidelity and his parents' subsequent and acrimonious divorce) to a compassionate, open-minded young man.  It's not surprising that with his growing attachment to Al and the guidance he provides that Jan is determined to help Al when he asks for assistance. 

While Not With a Bang has a commanding plot and one that I choose not to give away in this review, it's the characters that drew me to embrace its story.  Jan is hard-edged in his vocabulary, his actions, and his relationships and is probably more similar to a typical teen than not.  Al sees him as "a kid who coulda." (pg. 8) On the other hand, Al is a man with a poet's heart who lived through the "make love, not war" 1960's but still seems a mix of contradictions.  As different as the two are, the emotional guidance and unconditional support that Al provides brings Jan to provide the same for his new confidant.

Gail Sidonie Sobat is an expert in addressing critical issues for teens in uncharacteristic story lines.  Her teens are always real (though not always likeable) with authentic voices, likely taken from her vast experiences as a teacher and writing mentor for YouthWrite, a camp for young writers.  She eloquently tackled homosexuality and homophobia in Chance to Dance for You (Great Plains, 2011) and anorexia and mental illness in Gravity Journal (Great Plains, 2008) and now suggests readers think about drug use and euthanasia as embedded issues.  Without forcing her own ideas on her readers, Gail Sidonie Sobat allows glimpses into worlds that some readers may never experience, thereby increasing awareness, or that some have experienced, thereby providing validation for their realities.  Not With a Bang is neither far-fetched nor commonplace but insightful, challenging to views usually long-held, and sublimely powerful.  I've learned never to expect less from Gail Sidonie Sobat; I've never been disappointed.

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