by Valerie Sherrard
Fitzhenry & Whiteside
Yes, the book cover is beautiful. And the beauty of Rain Shadow's cover is only surpassed by Valerie Sherrard's story within.
Valerie Sherrard takes the reader back to Junction, Manitoba, the setting for her multi-award-winning book, The Glory Wind (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2010), a poetic tale of friendship and tragedy. Two years after The Glory Wind's events, twelve-year-old Bethany Anderson still only knows that something happened to Gracie, though her only memory involves a half penny she never was able to return to her schoolmate before she was gone. Bethany has never shared that with anyone and certainly not her fourteen-year-old sister Mira who calls Bethany a "Retard" and tells her about scary places for children like Bethany "who have parts that do not work correctly." (pg. 19) Bethany may have difficulties learning, and cannot read, and takes things too literally, but she has the biggest heart and blames herself too readily for things that are never in her control.
"But I did do wrong things lots of other days. Mostly, I did not know they were wrong until after I did them. That made me wish I knew how to write more words. Then I could have made a list of things I should not do so I would not forget them and keep upsetting Mother. At bedtime, I said the ones I could remember over and over in my head." (pg. 81)
Perhaps her gravest error, in her mind, was answering the door to a man and his family whose son later died of polio. Of course, no one knew he had polio at the time, and Bethany didn't invite them in or tell Mira to join them and Mother in the house; Mother did that. But when Mira contracts polio and dies, Mother's grief lashes out at Bethany.
"That made me feel like something black and scary was inside me." (pg. 83)Surprisingly, school becomes Bethany's salvation. Without Mira around, the other students are generally kinder to her, and her efforts are recognized, and there is always someone to chastize those who might be mean to her. So while Bethany might feel unwanted and inconvenient at home, a stone to Mira's jewel, at school she feels exactly like the others. And it's only through the efforts of others in the community that Bethany is encouraged to see how strong and brave she has always been.
The polio epidemics of the 1940s and 1950s were all the more frightening for the lack of understanding and the tragic prognoses. But the loss of a favourite and "perfect"child to polio is obviously too much for Bethany's mother to bear. Already flawed, as indicated by her treatment of Bethany, Mother could do nothing less than destroy her relationship with her only surviving daughter. That doesn't excuse her. But, by continuing to perpetuate the placement of her youngest daughter in Mira's (rain) shadow, her mother has actually nudged Bethany to explore everything she can be.
Valerie Sherrard is so adept at telling a story that could be anyone's tale. At its foundation, Rain Shadow is just the story of a girl with challenges whose family doesn't know how to meet her needs, especially after a great tragedy engulfs all of them. Though set in 1949, Rain Shadow encompasses the story lines of our lives: tragedy, relationships with siblings and parents, school life, the kindness of strangers, love, and self-awareness. But, conceived and written by Valerie Sherrard, Rain Shadow becomes a triumph of the human spirit to weather life's challenges and to even transcend them. It's a beautiful story amidst despairing circumstances.