Something To Hang On To

 CM: Canadian Review of Materials (Sept 25, 2009)

Subject Headings: Teenagers with disabilities-Juvenile fiction.
Teenagers-Conduct of Life-Juvenile fiction.
Grades 10-12 / Ages 15-17.
Review by Karen Rankin.
***½ /4

Our house back home in Cody, Wyoming has the kind of screen door that bangs shut so loudly you think it’s a gun going off. Not like some houses, where the door’s on one of those hinges that brings it gently to a close, our door is either open or shut and not much patience for anything else.

That’s the thing I remember about my mother leaving, the door’s solid and final slam. The funny part is, I wasn’t even home that day. Katie and I were both at school, and Dad, if he was in the house, never mentioned anything about the door. He’s never really talked about her leaving at all, if you want to know the truth. But maybe that’s because he’s been busy, dragging us up here to Canada to visit Aunt Dora who broke her hip and has to get surgery. First, we were just going to stay a couple of weeks, but now it’s until the end of spring term. I’m glad we got my best friend to look after King Arthur, our blue heeler, because he’s the kind of dog that needs lots of attention or he gets bored and runs off.

I look at my father over the top of his newspaper. His glasses seem to be growing right out of his eyes.

“Dad?” I say again.

“Mmhmmm,” he mumbles.

“What about the shoes? I need them for school. Can I have the money?”

“I’m not sure,” he says, scanning the page of ads. “You don’t actually take jazz, do you?”

“That’s not the point!” I say, noting that there is a distinct point on the top of his bald head. The light is catching it just right, making it look rather like what I imagine an epiphany to look like, if you could see one. (From “Jazz Shoes.”)

Beverley Brenna’s captivating collection of 11 short stories and one 12-page play was written over a 20 year period. The stories are set in North America, and all but one, “Gift Of The Old Wives,” are contemporary. The six female and six male protagonists range in age from a kindergarten student to a young man already out in the work force. Nevertheless, readers will find each story appealing, thanks largely to their unique, endearing, and credible central characters. Brenna, formerly a Special Education teacher (amongst other things) and now a professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Saskatchewan, plunges readers into the heads and hearts of people coping with special challenges and/or difficult situations. And each of Brenna’s heroes finds the strength within to move in a positive direction. These are thought-provoking and satisfying stories.

In “Dragon Tamer,” teenaged William waits at the hospital bedside for his father to die. William is angry with his dad for not taking better care of himself. William recalls being a hospital patient, himself, as a little boy. At that time, he’d felt his pneumonia was somehow his father’s fault. An older roommate had given him a stone, something to hang on to, that looked like an egg. She’d assured William that a dragon would hatch when he needed it. By the time his father dies, William has dealt with his anger and sees the passing of the dragon in the death of his father.

Bishop, the young male protagonist in Brenna’s award-winning story, “Foil Butterflies,” has a fantastic imagination and a great memory. While he can tell friends and family everything they ever wanted to know about Henry VIII, he can’t read social situations very well and has a hard time getting past his imagination to deal with reality. In “Foil Butterflies,” readers are immersed in Bishop’s world as he overcomes his fear of dogs.

In 'Jazz Shoes,' Sandra, or Summer, as she now wants to be called, is visiting her aunt in Canada with her father and little sister, Katie. Sandra reads her horoscope every day, resents her sister occasionally, and wears squeaky shoes that make fitting in at a new school even harder than normal. Sandra’s mother has left the family again, and when Sandra’s father announces that they’re moving from Wyoming to Canada for good, Katie cries, saying that their mother will never find them. When Sandra finally manages to get some money from her father to replace her squeaky shoes, she decides to spend it on a knapsack for Katie, who is also having a hard time fitting into her new environment.

“Gift Of The Old Wives” is a moving rendition of a Cree story from the early 1800’s, a time when fire forced the bison to travel west and the Cree followed in search of food. Teenaged Girl Who Hears Stones tells her grandmother that native Blackfoot warriors have spotted the Cree in their territory and are coming to kill them all. When the grandmother convinces her tribe to follow her self-sacrificing plan to thwart the Blackfoot, Girl Who Hears Stones knows that she will have to learn to be brave and keep her grandmother’s love and teaching in her heart.

In “Finding Your Voice,” kindergarten-aged Janine has been removed from her rural home and the inconsistent care of her troubled mother and placed in a temporary, urban, foster home. She is put in a kindergarten class that has other children with special needs. Ever since she left home, Janine has been a loner with a lot of words “smash[ing] around in her head,” but no voice to express them. When Samantha joins the class, Janine is attracted to “the most beautiful girl [she] has ever seen.” Samantha has severe physical limitations: she is also unable to speak and has control of only a few muscles. Janine and Samantha teach themselves a way to communicate silently, and Janine quickly becomes Samantha’s preferred classmate. When Janine’s mom comes to the school for a special, supervised lunch visit, Janine says, “I want Samantha to come too.” It’s the first time she’s gotten any words out since being moved to the city.

“One of the Guys” is the story of kind, trusting, and slow Rodney. Rodney has a job at the warehouse, and every weekend he goes surfing. Surfing makes Rodney feel like one of the guys. He loves catching waves and moving fast on his boogie board. Rodney’s parents are older now and live in a seniors’ lodge. Rodney’s social worker, Ms. Wineman, checks in on his group home once a month. She makes Rodney carry a card with his name, phone number, and DOWN SYNDROME written on it. Rodney likes that he can’t take that little card out surfing.

In “The Phone Call,”it has been over a month and a half since 19-year-old Ophelia’s boyfriend of eight months walked out without giving her a reason. Ophelia hasn’t been anywhere since he left. Unable to afford an answering machine, she stays home, waiting for his call. When the phone finally rings, Ophelia nearly hyperventilates because it isn’t him. However, the innocuous market-survey call eventually helps her snap out of her lethargy. Ophelia is able to put things in perspective again and move on with her life.

When teen-aged Leon gets his toe caught in a vacuum cleaner, a fire truck eventually arrives to help extract it. The next thing Leon knows, his neighbours are pressing into his bedroom for a better look. Despite the fact that “Toe Jam” is based on the author’s real-life experience of getting her toe jammed in a vacuum cleaner, to this reader, the story’s plot feels somewhat implausible. But Leon is a sympathetic and believable character. Readers will enjoy his humour and serendipitous meeting with the new girl down the street –– is her name Sandra or Summer?

Dexter and his friend Dustin are Métis teens old enough to drive in “Life Looks Different from the South End of a Parachute at Five-Thousand Feet Above Sea Level.” Since becoming friends in kindergarten, Dexter has taken second place to Dustin in everything except eating: Dexter has “at least a hundred pounds” on Dustin. Dustin has “always done cool stuff,” even some acting. When the two young men decide to try a parachute jump, Dexter climbs into the small plane behind Dustin, realizing too late that this means he’ll be the first out of the plane. He manages to overcome his anxiety and do the jump. Later, he finds out that Dustin didn’t jump. When Dexter realizes that not only did he go first, but he’s also the only one who went, his outlook on life is changed.

In“Something To Hang On To,” protagonist Taylor Jane is having an unexpected but important job interview. She doesn’t feel adequately dressed for the interview and is unnerved by the question, “What qualifies you for this position?” She is also angry with herself for swearing in an interview and for raising the subject of gerbils. Taylor Jane is qualified for the job, but she has Asperger’s Syndrome: “some of it’s a strength and some of it isn’t.” “Something To Hang On To” is a continuation of Taylor’s story from Brenna’s novel, Wild Orchid (2005). At the end of the interview, and the story, Taylor has something to hang on to -- hope.

“Travelling Light,” Brenna’s existentialist play, has three scenes. In scene one, 16-year-old Frank imagines killing his mother, Marjorie, as he clips his toenails into her china teacup and she rattles on about what the people across the street are up to. The neighbours seem to be throwing everything, including the registers and toilet tank, out the window. In scene two, Frank goes to investigate. One thing he learns is that the neighbour, Kasia, is moving that very evening. She has to get rid of weight because she is travelling light. Marjorie reminds Frank that they never saw Kasia’s family move in, let alone build the house, it all happened so fast. In scene three, Frank and his mother try to talk each other into having a cup of tea. Frank spies at Kasia’s house and discovers that it is gone. He is inspired to finally try travelling light himself.

In “Starting With Angels,” Zoe is home alone on New Year’s Eve. She feels like a “loser.” But she hasn’t told Alex, her dad, this. She doesn’t want to burden him with her problems. He’s gone off to work, with plans to have a drink with friends afterwards. Zoe tries a number of things to pass the time, but none of them are particularly satisfying until she comes across instructions to make angels. Zoe decorates the living room with white paper angels and candles. Then, she “flicks off the lights sending dark angel shadows flying along the walls, the floor, the ceiling. So real, Zoe can hear the wings opening, closing, small feathery sounds that lift her out of the small apartment and skyward.” Zoe falls asleep, finally contented by the strength, beauty, and promise of her paper art project. Alex arrives home after an evening of “dealing with his own new year’s ghosts.” Despite the weighty issues confronting him, Alex is cheered when he sees Zoe’s flickering angels. He’s glad that at least one of them has had a good New Year’s Eve.


Karen Rankin is a Toronto, ON, teacher and writer of children’s stories.

Resource Links, Volume 15; Number 2 (December 2009)
In this wonderful collection of 12 short stories, award winning author Beverley Brenna explores a myriad of themes and perspectives, all the while reminding us that in times of duress and hardship, we all need something to hang on to. We catch a glimpse of what it might be like to live with autism; we are taken five thousand feet into the air, and then thrown out of a plane with only a parachute to bring us to safety. We are made to laugh when one character’s toe is sucked up by a vacuum cleaner, and we are made to cry when a young girl sticks up for a new found friend who ha muscular dystrophy.

With each story offering a strong and distinctive voice, Brenna’s book would be an ideal choice for the Language Arts classroom. Students would undoubtedly learn a lot about narration, grammar, tone and style – not to mention all the important lessons that are learned from putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.

A compelling read that has the power to reach out and touch you. — Lindsay Schluter

Thematic Links: Autism; Cree Legends; Muscular Dystrophy; Down Syndrome; Asperger’s Syndrome; Fitting In; Short Stories