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Miss Smithers

by Susan Juby

My first exposure to the genre of junior chick-lit happened in an airport departure lounge. The girl sitting across from me was engrossed in her book. She was a tidy girl, ten-something, with a tidy family. Snooping at the half-concealed cover of her book I said to myself, “Isn’t that funny. If I didn’t know better I would think that I was reading the words ‘full frontal snogging.’ Silly me.” Turns out I didn’t know better. The book was Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison, and within two weeks every ten-something girl in my library was asking for it.

Alice McLeod in Miss Smithers may not win the talent show honour of this book’s title but she gets my vote for Miss Junior Chick-Lit of Canada. Alice is a 16-year-old formerly homeschooled misfit. She is self-absorbed while being utterly un-self-aware. She is both deeply arrogant and totally lacking in confidence. She’s worried about sex, friendship, status, God, food additives, and her hair. She considers her parents pathetic failures. She sees a therapist. What Susan Juby does with these essentials of contemporary teen life is delightful. The inside of Alice’s head (for of course we’re hearing the story in the first person, in a combination of narrative and excerpts from Alice’s zine), is a very enjoyable place to spend a few hours.

In a world of earnest teen angst Juby is genuinely, buoyantly funny. There is a plot of sorts somewhere in Miss Smithers. (OK, for those who already know Alice from her first book, Alice, I Think, here’s what’s up: Alice loses Goose the boyfriend but gets him back; Alice loses George the best friend but gets her back; Alice loses the Miss Smithers contest but gets BLACK LEATHER PANTS!) But all the action is really just an excuse for Alice’s collected thoughts on love, revenge, chastity, thrift store shopping, and Ashley MacIsaac.

How does Juby make this potpourri work so well? I see two things. One is the master stroke of setting it all in Smithers. In Smithers a good weekend involves a gravel pit party. In Smithers, “doing a Mainer” – driving very slowly up and down the Main Street while pointing and laughing at everyone else doing the same thing – is a mark of teen sophistication. In Smithers when you want a good haircut you go to the fashion mecca of Prince George. In Smithers and Alice, Juby has created a setting and character worthy to stand beside such other hilarious smalltown malcontents as Primrose Squarp of Coal Harbour (in Polly Horvath’s Everything on a Waffle) and Aggie Quade of Port Desire (in Julie Johnston’s In Spite of Killer Bees). Cool adolescent nihilism plays out against a background of Canadian Tire. Brilliant!

Juby’s other secret weapon is kindness. Miss Smithers is one of the most good-natured, large-hearted books I’ve encountered in many a season. Everybody in Alice’s world gets a fair shake. Drunks, nerds, the tentative, loudmouths, Christian youth, ex-hippy parents, and even that most difficult of characters to portray with fairness, the smart popular teenage girl: they all get their three dimensions and an affectionate exemption from authorial judgment.

One of the strands of the plot has a revealing echo. Alice includes in one issue of her zine an evaluation of all the people in her world. Like all good cub journalists she is clear-eyed and brutally honest. The zine was never actually intended for distribution but it gets leaked. Her subjects are naturally less than thrilled. Familiar dilemma? Yes, it’s like the children’s classic Harriet the Spy. This echo also applies to character and tone. Although Alice is a disaffected teen she really has more in common with Harriet than with Holden Caulfield. Alice’s Smithers is a world in which families play Monopoly, where little brothers are protected and adored, where a friend apologizes for luring you into trouble by giving you a copy of A Confederacy of Dunces. In Alice’s world when your mother goes away for two weeks you really miss her and, when the community stands up for you, you feel taken care of.

At this point Alice interrupts this review to enquire, with raised eyebrow, if and when I am going to stoop to using the word “wholesome,” and, if so, would I please remember that this book contains violence, vandalism, plans for a virginity-losing weekend, attitude, and bad language. Point taken, Alice. The tidy-haired ten-something is going to find Miss Smithers cool and edgy. The fifty-something librarian is going to find it warm and poignant. Both will be very pleased to have sojourned for a spell in Smithers, as reported by Alice.