May 22, 2014

What We Hide

by Marthe Jocelyn
Tundra Books
275 pp.
Ages 14+
May, 2014

I can't imagine a freer time than the 1960's and early 1970's when there were calls for "Love, Not War", when peace symbols and drugs were everywhere, and when contraception helped support the idea of free love.  Strangely, the young people in What We Hide should be immersed in all that liberating freedom, standing up for their views, and not taking any directions from the establishment.  Yet these teens have their heads and hearts in two worlds: the traditional, even old-fashioned world more typical of  their parents and school administrators, and the experimenting, liberal explorations of their peers.  What they choose to hide is all rooted in their conflicting ideas of right and wrong, wants and needs, smart and ignorant, and childish and mature.

To help her older brother evade the draft for the Vietnam War (sadly something his best friend Matt chose not to do), Jenn accompanies Tom to England where he will attend Sheffield University and she Illington Hall, a boarding school, nearby.  The new milieu allows Jenn to become the American Jenny with the (imaginary) boyfriend Matt who is fighting in Vietnam.  Except for occasionally hearing from Tom who is heavily into smoking weed and avoiding contacting Matt, Jenny's world is Illington Hall, her new friends and misdirecting them to maintain her story.  But Jenny is just one of the narrators in What We Hide who reveal in the text that which they won't share elsewhere.

There's Robbie a local boy who knows he's gay but keeps it from everyone, especially his 18-year-old brother Simon, whose sexual exploits have already made him a father and has him engaged to marry another pregnant girl.  Robbie meets a boy from the boarding school, Luke, who never knew he was gay and, although smitten with Robbie, is still trying to discover whether he might like girls if he just found the right one. Luke and sister Kirsten come from a seemingly perfect family, or so classmate Penelope believes, until she finagles an invitation from them for the weekend.  And Penelope, whose aggressive attitude suggests that she'd have sex with anyone and it wouldn't be a big deal, has a big secret about her mother that she won't share.  Another classmate, Percy, too has a secret about his parent but one that could bring him popularity or shame.

I haven't even mentioned Nico, who is the school's heart throb and whose intimacy with his girlfriend Sarah is well known. But now that Sarah has returned home to Toronto, who is in Nico's line of sight? Jenny? Oona, Sarah's best friend?  What about Brenda, the sister of the mother of Simon's son?  She's a local but she attends Illington Hall as a day student, always straddling the line between the unrefined life of a local and the ambitious scholarship of her boarding school.

How Marthe Jocelyn, who could not have been old enough to have experienced this era, could accurately portray the thoughts and actions of Jenny, Robbie, Luke, Penelope and all their peers is astounding to me.  She has covered the full gamut from naive to promiscuous (though it is the time of free love, right?) and brash to reserved, but the confusion that seems to predominate the teen years is always there, regardless of background, wealth, family, friends, or intelligence.  These young people are all trying to find out who they are, wanting to be someone: a cherished son, a first love, a supportive sister, a sympathetic friend.  But wanting to be someone is not enough  to make it happen.
"Maybe I'd been hoping for a miracle, but I thought I'd be someone else by now.  I thought at least that I'd be . . . someone." (pg. 258)
But like all stories based on secrets or lies (misdirections, as Percy calls them), the truth will eventually be uncovered, for good or bad. Marthe Jocelyn makes it clear that the drama swirling around all these hidden truths in What We Hide is what takes the energies of these young people.  Sadly they don't know that the issues which are consuming them are real and significant as they are but creating dramas enfold these concerns just compounds them.  Some come to that realization more swiftly than others but still with heartache (Penelope recognizes that, "There is only me to blame for where I am.  There is only me." [pg. 197])

While I feel for these young people, wishing that they could trip through their teen years with more spirit and less angst, Marthe Jocelyn makes it clear that they will deal as they can, and things will work out or not, but they have the capacity to learn more about themselves through these hardships, regardless what they hide.

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