April 22, 2014

Outside In

by Sarah Ellis
Groundwood Books
208 pp.
Ages 10-13
For release May 2014

It's very reassuring to feel part of something–a family, a group of friends, a choir–and to be appreciated by the others.  Though thirteen-year-old Lynn is hardly part of a "typical" family, she has enjoyed the parental love of and stable home of her mother's boyfriend, Clive, for the past five years.  And with a mother like Shakti, Lynn's life hardly felt stable.  Shakti's self-absorption and twisted decision-making skills continue to wreak havoc in Lynn's life.  Take her recent affair with Brandon, the husband of a nurse at the extended care facility at which Shakti works.  Not only does Shakti put her relationship with Clive in jeopardy, she's oblivious to the real possibility of losing their home in Clive's townhouse and she's not willing to give Brandon up.  Then Lynn's mother quits her job because
"...it was a good opportunity because Shakti felt that it was time for a realignment of her energies and a reevaluation of her skills." (pg. 23)
Luckily, Lynn has got some exceptional friends in Celia and Kas and the three are looking forward to attending a choirfest in Portland, Oregon, giving Lynn a chance to extricate herself from an uncomfortable situation, at least temporarily.  But that doesn't happen either, because Shakti had forgotten to send away Lynn's passport application, as promised, too busy with her own dramas.

No Clive, no friends, no choir, and just her mother.  Lynn is ripe for finding something, anything, to keep her occupied while her friends are away.  She begins spending time with a girl named Blossom whose unusual nature intrigues Lynn.  Blossom admits that she is an Underlander and lives with her father Fossick and brothers, Tron (17) and Larch, in a cottage they've constructed and hidden beneath the reservoir.  The family is definitely different:  avoiding attention, using invisibility mugs, setting idea Traplines, and differentiating between steals and finds, and throwaways or keepsakes.  Lynn becomes "the visitor" at their home, promising that she will always keep it secret for them.

While Lynn is anticipating the collision of her old friends and new friends, the greatest threat to the familial goodwill she is enjoying with Blossom is Shakti.  And the resulting implosion is inevitable and devastating.

Sarah Ellis' writing has always juxtaposed the tenuous nature of family with its strength.  There's The Baby Project (Groundwood, 1986), Pick-Up Sticks (Groundwood, 1991) and Odd Man Out (Groundwood, 2006).  In Outside In, Sarah Ellis illustrates the fragility of our worlds and our families, both traditional and not, when secrets are kept, promises broken and new beliefs or ideas introduced.  Fossick has devised an alternative lifestyle for himself, Tron, Blossom and Larch, with their version of family functional as long as they all support and work towards its success.  While Lynn sees them as refreshing, their family is also in jeopardy when outsiders bring in new ideas or family members want to explore the outside world.

Bringing the outside in can be dangerous, as Fossick fears, and the disaster experienced because they trusted Lynn would bear witness to the validity of that view.  Lynn's own "family" knows that conundrum of letting someone from outside in with Shakti's involvement with Brandon.  But Sarah Ellis makes it clear that it's not that simple.  Whether it's Lynn appropriating some of Fossick and Blossom's views, or Larch venturing outside when he'd rather not, the outside and inside of anything are never clearly defined as good or bad.  Having witnessed this herself, Lynn could only hope that Shakti would embrace this learning herself.  But the imperfect family is a reality.  Sadly, I believe that Shakti has a lot more growing up to do if her selfish insideness is ever to be open to the goodness that Lynn and the world has to offer. 

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