Sunday, March 14, 2010

Against the odds

Against the odds / Marjolijn Hof; translated from the Dutch by Johanna H. Prins & Johanna W. Prins.
Toronto: Groundwood, 2009, c2006.
124 p.

Summary from the author's homepage:

Kiek’s father is a doctor who works for an international aid agency. Now he’s been sent to a distant war zone. Kiek is worried. What if he gets killed? Her mother explains there’s hardly a chance something like that will happen. Kiek wants to make the chance even smaller. She knows one child with a dead father, and one child with a dead mouse. And one child with a dead dog. But a child with a dead mouse, a dead dog and a dead father is something you won’t find very often. Kiek needs a mouse.

In the English translation, the 11 yr. old heroine's name is Kiki. And Kiki is determined to do what she can to increase the odds against her father being injured or killed in a distant war. As she says in the first paragraph of the novel:

Every now and then he went off to a war... You're heading the wrong way when you go off to a war. It's better to stay as far away from wars as you can.

This is a wonderful novel; though it is for a juvenile audience it deals with serious moral issues, with grace and with humour. Kiki is hilarious and believable, and the situation her family is dealing with is not treated in a facile way. Her concerns are taken seriously and shown to have some basis in fact.

She reminds me of some of the young girls we've seen as narrators lately in novels aimed at an adult audience: Paloma in Elegance of the Hedgehog, or Flavia de Luce in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, or Mathilda Savitch in her eponymous book. But Kiki is more essentially still a child and although she is able to express herself in elegant language she is very much a young, powerless and struggling adolescent. Unlike these other heroines, Kiki's relationship with her mother (and absent father) is vital and strong, and she is trying to negotiate the balance between her love for her father and her anger that he would leave them and put himself in danger.

Kiki's mother takes the time to explain why her father feels compelled to act as a doctor in these dangerous situations, even if it means he has to leave his family for a while. Ethical and compassionate considerations are explained clearly, and Kiki's reaction to them is explored deeply. There is so much in this brief narrative. The main characters, Kiki's nuclear family, are clear and complex individuals. Her paternal grandmother is also a strong character when she appears halfway through the book, and her outwardly rude behaviour is identified as being her reaction to worry. The story has so much compassion for each character's inner life, and talks about understanding one another, about understanding what each person is feeling that might cause their behaviours. This small novel has endless points of discussion, and I feel that the author's approach and her soulful writing can serve as a great tool to spark empathy among readers.

Not only the human characters, but the animal ones, dogs and mice alike, are also carefully drawn. Caring for those who need you is a major theme of the book. Their fat dog Mona is not a favourite of Kiki's but by the end they have worked out a detente. And Kiki's mouse Squeaky also becomes important to her. Here she is trying to wheedle a sickly animal out of the pet shop employee so that she can own a creature who dies, in order to increase the odds of her father returning home safely:

"I want another mouse," I said.
The boy from the pet store showed me the mouse cage. There were about ten little mice.
"Don't you have any old mice?" I asked.
"Nobody wants an old mouse," the boy said.
"But I do. I want an old mouse. Or a sick mouse."
"We don't sell sick mice," the boy said. "What is it you really want?"
"I'd really like a very old mouse," I said.
The boy looked at me. "Forget it! What for? Do you have a snake?"
"No," I said.
"But that's normal," the boy said. "Some snakes eat mice."
"It's for school," I lied. "At school we're talking about helping others. About old people and sick people and how you have to take care of them."
"And?" the boy said.
"And old animals," I said. "The ones nobody wants to own anymore, because they'll die soon. First I wanted an old cat from the shelter, but my mother wouldn't get me one. But she'll let me have an old mouse."
"Ok, then," said the boy.
I didn't know I was such a good liar. Of course I had lied before, but usually it didn't work. My mother could almost always tell by my face, and at school they hardly ever believed me. But the boy at the pet store looked at me and didn't guess a thing.
"I can get good grades with it," I said.

I loved this book, and read it quickly in one evening. As I mentioned, it is very brief. However, the writing was so wonderful that I am planning on reading it once more before returning it to the library. This is a book that could be used in a book club for younger readers, or a Mother-Daughter kind of book club. The themes are well drawn, yet it doesn't feel like an "issue novel". Each character is original and feels so real. The story deals with serious issues in an entertaining, humorous and yet respectful manner. Highly recommended.

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