Thursday, December 20, 2012

I'll Be Watching

I'll Be Watching / Pamela Porter
Toronto: Groundwood, c2011.
280 p.

This is a novel in verse by the award winning author of The Crazy Man, another verse novel aimed at a juvenile audience.
This book is classified YA in my library, but I would caution that it is for mature readers as it deals directly with some serious issues -- abandonment, incest, sexual assault, thievery, and so forth. And it does have some "language" in it if that kind of thing bothers you.

For my part, I loved this book. Loved it. So powerful and the verse simply carried me along. It faintly reminded me in its tone and structure of the classic Spoon River Anthology. It takes place in the 40's, in Argue, Saskatchewan (Western Canada). The Loney family is in a bad way: mother Margaret has died, and father George has just frozen to death after being locked out by his new wife Effie for coming home drunk. Effie takes off with a travelling bible salesman, leaving the four Loney children to make it on their own. And I do mean on their own -- the town is full of self-righteous people who refuse to help these layabouts and do nothing but gossip about how dirty, heathen, etc. they are.

The oldest, Ran, is 16 but lies about his age to get into the army, thinking that he will at least be sending money home. Nora, 14, takes on the care of her two younger brothers, going out to work as a live-in maid for one of the town's leading families at one point, before something so nearly awful happens that she runs home again.

Nora and the two younger boys turn to scavenging and even minor theft to survive, and tear their house apart for firewood, living in one room together with the stove. Effie returns in the spring and is so angry about the state of "her" house that she boots them all out. Fortunately, by this time the local schoolteacher has noticed what is happening and comes to the rescue. Ran, thankfully, also returns and their future seems to be looking up. But this book shines in its structure: the characters all speak about their experience, even some of the minor characters in town. The name of the speaker is noted at the top of each section, and it has the effect of being a chorus, sharing perspectives on the hidden problems, flaws, and failings of an insular community. It is powerful and moving. The creativity of the Loneys in trying to get by is quite abundant, as evidenced by the section excerpted on the back of the book, a timely excerpt as they figure out how to make the Christmas season work for them:



One of the things that I found particularly interesting about how Porter sets up the story is the narrators she includes. The title comes from the fact that Margaret and George, now spirits, follow their children and intervene in dire moments to keep them safe and sound. It doesn't feel gimmicky, rather, it was quite touching and sometimes even amusing. 

This is a very well done book, with pathos, humour, sadness, and the strength of family all shining through. I'd recommend this one for a look at the end of the depression years in an isolated prairie town, far above Sinclair Ross' As For Me and My House. Especially for those high school students who still get Ross on the reading list. And anyone who already finds novels in verse appealing will be impressed with this one.

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