September 21, 2015

250 Hours

by Colleen Nelson
Coteau Books
152 pp.
Ages 12+
September 2015

“I don’t want to set them. But it’s like if I don’t do it, something worse will happen.  Watching something burn means I’ve saved a different bad thing from happening.”  He knew it sounded crazy, but maybe she’d understand because there was hurt inside of her too. (pg. 68)

And Jess Sinclair is right.  The hurt that compels him to set fires, hence his 250 hours community service, is also in 18-year-old Sara Jean whose grandmother’s garage is being cleaned out by Jess.  But, while both deal with abandonment issues–Jess by his father eight years earlier and Sara Jean at two months of age by her mother–and have significant relationships with their grandmothers, Jess’s hurt is wrapped up in living with the double-edged discrimination of being Métis as Sara Jean deals with being shackled to small-town life as primary caregiver to her 450-lb. grandmother, Gam.

While the two teens attempt to accept their responsibilities to their families and communities, they yearn to become independent of the hurts that define their lives, and they find themselves drawn to each other, particularly after Sara Jean discovers memorabilia of her Grandpa’s teaching at the local residential school.   But everyone seems to be keeping secrets and the discrimination Sara Jean detects from her boyfriend and his family, her own Gam and Aunt Mim towards Jess and Aboriginal People compels her to learn more, especially after she finds a small pair of moccasins that, unbeknownst to her, Jess is convinced his kokum had made.

Colleen Nelson tells another powerful story (see my review of The Fall, Great Plains Teen Fiction, 2013) in 250 Hours, but focuses on small-town mindedness, the injustice of the residential schools, and family expectations in such a way that the reader will sympathize for Jess and Sara Jean who feel trapped by the stifling suffocation of their histories.  How do you break free to make a new life for yourself when there is so much holding you back?
There’s always a reason to stay.  I guess there has to be better reasons to go. (pg. 69)
Don’t be surprised if you feel enraged by the injustices perpetrated against these young people and against Aboriginal people.  That’s good because we all should be.  I suspect that 250 Hours is a truer reflection of life for many who experience blatant discrimination, whether wholesale as evoked by the residential school situations or  randomly by ignorant individuals, and for youth limited by the influence of family and peers.  Not surprising that everyone seems to know what's best for others. Thankfully, Colleen Nelson makes sure that Sara Jean's and Jess's stories are told, albeit in a fictionalized tale, to give them voice, freedom and limitless possibilities to be themselves.  It’s a powerful story of redemption where none seemed possible.

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