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Box Girl

by Sarah Withrow

Sarah Withrow’s characters are would-be escape artists: caught in painfully binding realities, they box themselves in even more tightly in preparation for flight. In her first novel, Bat Summer (which won the Groundwood First Novel for Children Contest and a nomination for a Governor General’s Award), one of the main characters copes with her loneliness and grief by holing up, bat-like, in attics and caves. In Box Girl, 13-year-old Gwen enacts a daily ritual of building a box with the postcards sent from France by her estranged mother. Chanting as she arranges the cards, Gwen tries to make psychic contact with her mother and actualize the promises on the cards to bring Gwen to France. She constructs larger walls around herself, too, by refusing the friendship of Clara, a new girl at school, and freezing out her father and his same-sex partner, Leon, whom she blames for her mother’s leaving. As Gwen renegotiates her relationships and identity, gradually accepting new friends and her father’s desire to be “out,” the box of cards begins to lose its hold on her, and the illusions it once housed start to fall away.
Withrow, who teaches writing courses in Kingston, Ontario, is a master of her craft. Her prose is clean and spare, her narrative seamless. The choice of first-person present-tense narration is well suited to a coming-of-age novel as it suggests that Gwen, like everyone else, is figuring things out as she goes along. Unfortunately, the cover illustration, with its pastel colours and painting of two girls who look about eight years old, does not do justice to the book. I hope that it doesn’t turn prospective young adult readers, both male and female, away from this absorbing and intelligently written novel.