August 21, 2013

Whatever

by Ann Walsh
Ronsdale Press
978-1-55380-259-4
200 pp.
Ages 12+
September 2013

Could any single non-profanity hold as much antipathy as the teen dismissal of, "Whatever"?  It's used frequently by sixteen-year-old Darrah Patrick whenever she feels an answer is expected but honesty will not be appreciated.  With her brother, not yet 10, diagnosed in the past year with epilepsy, Darrah feels neglected by her parents whose every worry revolves around Andrew. So, when her mother insists on taking Andrew to the hospital after he has a seizure, rather than taking Darrah to her final audition for a community theatre production, Darrah is not pleased.  In fact, she pulls the fire alarm at the hospital as her only chance to escape and recapture that opportunity.

Although she tosses off the seriousness of the situation with her "whatever", Darrah is in danger of being charged with setting a false alarm during which an elderly woman, Mrs. Johnson, is injured.  Even when Darrah is given the option of participating in the Restorative Justice program, rather than going to court, she's not too concerned.
"I was a good actress, I would con everyone." (pg. 11)
Her biggest concern is getting everything resolved before Halloween so she can attend a party!  

At the Restorative Justice Circle, Darrah is directed to apologize to all parties and to assist Mrs. Johnson while she heals, even though the elderly woman denies that Darrah caused her injuries when the teen raced down the stairs.

Mrs. Johnson reminds Darrah of her very proper grandmother, now passed. She has knitted slippers at the door for her guests, enjoys her garden, cooking and baking, and keeping up on the news.  The teen does as she's asked–reads the newspaper, bakes biscuits, prepares tea, washes dishes–and though she believes Mrs. J is opinionated, Darrah finds herself learning much from the elderly woman.   Happily, Darrah is learning to cook, something her fast-food-fed family appreciates immensely, while also making the acquaintance of Mrs. Johnson's grandson, Robin, 17.  

Perhaps most surprising is Darrah's growing maturity ("whatever" is heard less often) and compassion regarding her brother's epilepsy.  With the focus turning from herself to those around her, she begins to see evidence that Mrs. Johnson is going blind, although she promises to keep her condition a secret.  But, secrets become the premise upon which Whatever's plot both expands and wraps up.  And like all secrets, some come out, some stay hidden, some need to be exposed, and some should be protected.

While I have only read Ann Walsh's Forestry A-Z (with Kathleen Cook Waldron; Orca, 2008) and Flower Power (Orca, 2005), it's evident that the author, a resident of Williams Lake, British Columbia, finds fodder for her writing within her community.  In Whatever, Ann Walsh who is a facilitator with the Williams Lake Community Council for Restorative Justice applies her experience to illuminating the process by which Darrah's wrongful acts are handled.  But perhaps more significant is the effect that Darrah's consequences have on everyone, even beyond the Justice Circle, highlighting the value of restorative justice.  I suspect that Darrah's arrogance would have flourished if she'd been incarcerated.  Instead, that "whatever" arrogance dissipated, to the benefit of all.

It's a skill that a writer can introduce a character that you despise at first read, like self-centred, inconsiderate Darrah, and have them evolve into a person whom you might consider befriending.  Ann Walsh does this with and for Darrah.  While Whatever has an engaging plot that hinges on justice, secrets, and responsibility, I believe it is superseded by the development of its characters, primarily Darrah, driven by the consequences of her actions.  Even Darrah's mom, whose workaholism drives her to helicopter parent Andrew while neglecting other family issues, becomes a more sympathetic character as the story progresses.  She may still find it difficult to disregard the doctors' advice that it is not necessary to bring Andrew to the hospital each time he has a seizure, but she shows her appreciation for Darrah's efforts towards her brother and the family.  Moreover, Mrs. Johnson herself comes full circle, from the victim of an inconsiderate teen to the culprit whose secrets and actions impact others.  Luckily, Ann Walsh and Darrah both recognize that Mrs. Johnson's actions are never thoughtless and give her the courtesy to extend a virtual "Whatever" should anyone think otherwise.

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