I had no doubt when I bought this book that it really was going to be rewarding. I'd been on the lookout for it for ages. I'd read this author's first book, What Boys Like, a book of short stories, and was blown away then. Here's what I said about it years ago. As I said then, that book introduced me to the Metcalf-Rooke Award which it won in 2008/2009. As an aside, if you want to read some stellar writing, check out the winners of those awards.
Then, when I joined Twitter, I found Amy Laura Jones tweeting away. She had, at the time, a list of favourite things. The list included bacon! Holeee! It's like we were soul sisters. Okay, maybe not. But I did find out from her tweets that her new book was going to be set in Thunder Bay.
Thunder Bay is one of my favourite places in the world. I spent my teenage years there. You know the teenage years; when you are no longer a child and don't yet have the burdens and responsibilities of adulthood and the whole world is your oyster. Not that I didn't have my share of normal teenage angst but, for the most part, those years were full of fun and adventure. Thunder Bay (Port Arthur and Fort William then) and its environs was my oyster.
If you are from Toronto or even from Winnipeg, there are lots of books set there and it is fun to read of places you are familiar with and I do enjoy those Toronto/Winnipeg books. But I haven't read a lot of books set in TBay. The Factory Voice by Jeanette Lynes comes to mind and that was great but I don't remember many more.
We're All in This Together isn't just in Thunder Bay, it oozes Thunder Bay; from Finnish pancakes to Kakabeka Falls, Merla Mae to the Sleeping Giant, Chippewa Park and Mt. McKay. I used to look at Mt. McKay from my own yard! Sometimes only half of Mt. McKay mind you. Clouds sometimes chopped off the top part. But I had stomped all over those places and breathed in that air. I'd inhabited, in a very real way, the place the Parkers inhabited. The high school mentioned was my own friggin' high school for Pete's sake (Let's go Tigers, let's go!). I'd visited Hillcrest Park in the day time with my grandparents to sit and talk on the benches and to admire the flowers; and with my boyfriend at night to sit in his car and get all romantic under the stars and above the city lights. Because, hey, it was Lovers' Lane and I was sixteen.
So for me, this book was steeped in nostalgia and for that reason alone it was a delight to read from cover to cover. I kinda guessed it would be even going in.
But, as it turned out, this book captured my heart in more ways than that.
I adore the Parkers. Seeing as this review is, so far, all about me, I'm tempted to say the Parkers are my family! But wait. We did not take in a troubled youth. We have not one set of twins. None of us took off in a snit and none of us ever slept with our sister's boyfriend. And none of us, at least that are saying, ever got arrested. And yet ... I would almost swear that if I ran into one of those Parkers at Chapple's Department Store I'd recognize them in an instant and we'd hug like long lost cousins. What? There's no more Chapple's? Scollies Ice Cream then. Oh shut up. The point being, regardless of setting, Jones has created a set of characters, and there's a lot of them, who are, each of them, entirely believable and intimately knowable and, despite their flaws, quite likeable. Sort of like my own family. And, I'll bet, yours.
Most of these Parkers and some of the not-Parkers have their own chapters (each ingeniously fronted by their own "Hazard" sign! ) Each relates, in the third person, his or her own perspective of shared events, and importantly, of each other. Thus the reader gets to know the characters and their relationships with each other perhaps better than each of them do. And we love them and root for them even when they don't seem to love, much less like, each other or themselves. These characters, every one of them, will remain with me a long long time.
Jones has written a fresh and modern story, with the Internet and social media evident as well as timely issues such as ecology, bullying and mental health concerns. I especially appreciated experiencing Kate's dementia from her own perspective. Her description of the feeling of the water against her body made me almost want to weep. A reminder that even when the mind gets muddled there's still a person inside that body, a person who still experiences things, has feelings.
The relationship between Kate and her granddaughter London reminded me of my own relationship with my paternal grandmother. London was much wiser than I was at her age though. London recognized her grandmother's dementia even when the rest of the family did not (or refused to). When I was London's age the opposite was true. I remember my mother and my aunt (my grandmother's daughters-in-law) getting all "consterned" about what they were going to do about Nana. Yes, we called our grandmother Nana too. Nana had begun to do some, at least as far as her daughters-in-law were concerned, socially unacceptable things. I thought, "So what?" being inclined at the time to do some rather socially unacceptable things myself. This day, the whole fam-damly was off to the beach to swim and picnic. We had just arrived at the prime picnic table we had claimed for ourselves on the edge of the beach. Kids were grabbing swim suits and towels, adults were were rummaging around in baskets for blankets and cameras and drinks and who knows what all. I, being too cool for such things, had hung back a bit from the fray and I noticed my Nana had begun undress. I asked her if she wanted to go to the change hut, but she shooed me away with her hand. So I watched with bemusement as she took off item after item and I wondered how far she'd get. I said not a word and brought no attention to her and I watched as, naked as the proverbial jay-bird, she ambled off down the beach. She'd got a goodly distance when suddenly my mother or my aunt caught sight of her and erupted, "Jessie! Come back here!" and the two sisters-in-law took off after her. I shouted, "Go Nana go!" which earned me a dark look of disapproval from my mother but set my Nana off running as fast as her legs could carry her. Well, of course, she was captured and ushered back to the table with giant beach towels and admonitions covering her nakedness. And as the sisters-in-law clucked around her, she leaned toward me and gave me a big fat wink.
I remember, Nana.
Thank you, Amy Laura Jones. Your book is the magic heart of a dragon. I forgive you about the persians.