February 11, 2013

Nix Minus One

by Jill MacLean
Pajama Press
Ages 12+
296 pp.
February 15, 2013

"Two's tougher than one."

This is what Roxanne used to say to her younger brother Nixon Humbolt, once known as Fatty Humbolt, when they were younger.  Because of his girth and quiet nature ("Unless he addresses his issues around communication, Nixon will be unsuited for any occupation that requires interfacing with the public" wrote his guidance counsellor), Nixon often needed someone in his corner.  

Now 15 and 16, it's Nix and Roxy.  Nix is taller and leaner and more skilled at finding the means to fight his battles.  For example, saddened to see the hopelessness in the dog forever chained outside boozy Swiff Dunphy's place, Nix buys a leash and dog treats, and essentially tells Swiff he's taking the dog for walks.  The dog, who Nix names Twig, may be reticent at first, but eventually the two are walking out on the Newfoundland barrens daily and getting more fit.  Between attending school, woodworking in his dad's furniture-making shop, crushing on a friend's girlfriend and walking Twig, Nix feels like his life is full enough.

Roxy, on the other hand, always seems to feel like there's more out there.  She's developing a rebellious streak: changing her hair colour, breaking rules, becoming a party girl and then going out with a senior - rich kid Bryan Sykes - who supposedly deals in drugs and is always accompanied by his friend and enforcer Cyril.  Regardless how little time they actually spend together anymore, Nix repeatedly advises Roxy to stay away from Bryan, even while covering her when she stays out overnight or comes home drunk.  
How can someone drive you into the middle of next week and make you feel like you'd slay sixteen dragons for her? (pg. 105)
And Roxy has her own advice for Nix, that is, other than to stay out of her business. She suggests that he's always playing it safe, sheltering himself in a box so that he can avoid taking risks that could result in failure.  For example, she declares that he's only crushing on Chase's girlfriend, Loren, because he knows he can't have her.  (Of course she doesn't know that Nix has been thinking more and more about Chase's 14-year-old sister, Blue, who birds on the barrens and for whom he is building bird boxes.) But when Swiff sells Twig, Roxy tries to get Nix to think outside the box and find the means to get "his" dog back.

And then everything changes.

Nix Minus One shows off Jill MacLean's characteristic strong plotting that helped win countless awards and nominations for her other books: The Nine Lives of Travis Keating (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2008), The Present Tense of Prinny Murphy (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2009) and Home Truths (Dancing Cat Books, 2010).  She creates characters who would be considered ordinary, i.e., less than perfect, and has them deal with troubling, even tragic circumstances.  Roxy, Nix, Blue, and even Mom and Dad, are more reflective of Jill MacLean's readership than the sterile but beautiful people of popular shows and movies.  By making Nix Minus One's characters into "real" people who make some wise decisions, some incredibly poor choices and some that fortuitously leave no permanent scars, Jill MacLean fosters understanding and empathy.

I would like to recognize Nix Minus One as Jill MacLean's first foray into the novels-in-verse genre, heralding a new achievement in writing for her.  While her writing is strong and fluid but laced with vulnerability, Nix Minus One demonstrates the one-two punch nature of novels in verse:  the author's word choice and sentence structure are now enhanced with the form of the writing.  The structure of the verse can intensify the text, or suggest confusion, weakness or apathy, though Jill MacLean always chooses wisely, never overworking her form or content.  So, while the title suggests a subtraction or loss, I believe Nix Minus One demonstrates that Jill MacLean has found the literary means, i.e., free verse, to add to the total experience of one of her stories.  As an equation, that would read,
Nix - 1 =  Jill MacLean2

 ❒  ❒  ❒  ❒  ❒  ❒  ❒  ❒ 

A teaser book trailer for Nix Minus One was uploaded on February 1, 2013 by Erin Woods of Pajama Press to YouTube and can be viewed on CanLit for LittleCanadians Book Trailers page here.


  1. This sounds amazing but I'm a little scared by the title that it's going to be Very Sad! Will look for it anyway ;).

  2. Many thanks Helen for your thoughtful and insightful comments.

    I'm so glad that readers are discovering Nix and enjoying his story.