August 03, 2013

Smokescreen

by Nancy Hartry
Tundra Books
978-1-77049-405-3
202 pp.
Ages 12+
August 2013

I know that most coming-of-age stories involve protagonists in their early to mid-teens, but Kerry Williams is seventeen and definitely in need of growing into herself by Smokescreen's book end.  You see, at the story's onset, Kerry is thrown into a totally unfamiliar situation: a summer job for the Department of Forestry and Parks in the northern Ontario bush as a cottage development technician i.e., looking for potential sites to develop for cottages.  Kerry is convinced that her mother happily finagled this job for her after she'd disappointed her by losing a major Irish Dance competition due to a fall and subsequent injury ("My body betrayed me.  Correction, my mother overtrained me." pg. 8). Regardless how naive the Toronto teen might feel in her new circumstances, especially after she meets Yvette Bernier, her nineteen-year-old partner for the summer, she is determined to not fail.  Luckily, even though Yvette comes off the bus looking like a trendy urbanite, she knows everything about working in the bush, dealing with campfuls of men, negotiating with bosses who try to push summer students into unsafe conditions, and how to handle herself to ensure a profitable and worry-free summer, and she willingly shares this knowledge with Kerry.

But a raging forest fire has them moving base camps several times and conscripted to work in food prep and camp work for the fire crews.  In addition to their misogynistic boss, Buzz Harcourt, there's Didier, the handsome and friendly crew boss of a fire unit; Matt the pilot who must take them north regardless of Yvette's refusal to go; Rolf, the older, no-nonsense professional camp cook who is eventually brought in; Slash, the scary and scarred man brought in to help with heavy kitchen work; Aubrey, the intense Métis fire crew boss on whom Kerry crushes and Yvette does not trust; and Mr. Sirois, the violent and sexist boss man from New Brunswick.  

Over time, Yvette has learned to trust very few people, particularly ones that seem to have hidden agendas, and she warns Kerry repeatedly about watching her back.  But, with the discovery of Yvette's pink lighter at the source of the forest fire, the young women realize that there is someone who is setting Yvette up, and they must tread carefully to keep their jobs and protect themselves.  Problem is that Kerry and Yvette have very different perceptions about whom to trust, and the emotional baggage they each bring to their friendship has them repeatedly at odds.  It's only when the two get mixed up in a potentially deadly situation that Kerry can see Yvette's vulnerability and accept her own strengths as the basis for their survival.

Nancy Hartry, author of the 2010 Canadian Library Association's Book of the Year for Children Award–Watching Jimmy (Tundra, 2009)–knows how to take a straightforward storyline, e.g., teens taking summer jobs in the bush, and enriching it with psychological intricacies and complex social situations that can take straightforward to dangerous.  And that's probably why her stories hit home for her readers.  There are no paranormal experiences or supernatural elements that take the story into the fantasy and improbable, if not impossible, realm.  The characters in her books could be our children, our neighbours, friends, family.  So, as we read and recognize that these circumstances could happen to anyone and that different elements could be derived directly from the news, we read a little more cautiously, hopeful that no one we know should ever have these experiences, and thoroughly, perhaps learning the means by which survival may be achieved.  Nancy Hartry shares a dramatic story that could be passed down from one summer student to another, or from parent to child, or from anyone to anyone who wants to tell a good story and teach a little something in the process.  Nancy Hartry does both in Smokescreen

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