There is nothing harder to perceive than our own preconceptions, and perhaps no better remedy for this blindness than walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. That idea drives two new novels by a pair of top Canadian YA writers, Deborah Ellis and Pam Withers.
Ellis’s No Ordinary Day is narrated by young Valli, a coal picker in the northern Indian town of Jharia. Jharia is well-known for its underground coal fires, some of which have been burning for over a century – an apt metaphor for Valli’s own smouldering desire for change. She lives with her desperately poor aunt and uncle and their large family, most of whom seem barely to tolerate her presence. Although bright and cheerful by nature, Valli knows she faces a dismal future.
Yet even she has someone to look down on: the lepers who live on the other side of the tracks. Valli and the other townspeople view them as “monsters,” cursed for sins committed in previous lives. She and the other children throw stones at them.
Valli’s world changes abruptly when she learns that she and her “family” are not actually related: the people she knows as her aunt and uncle are just neighbours who agreed to take her in (for a fee) after her unwed mother died in childbirth. She leaves immediately (and with implausible haste), jumping on a coal truck that is headed out of town. Thus begins an odyssey that leads her from Jharia to Kolkata – first to a brothel, then to the streets to beg.
Valli eventually discovers she has leprosy, a diagnosis far more frightening to her than all the abuse, poverty, and prejudice she has hitherto faced. She must either accept that she is a “monster,” or abandon her prejudices and start seeing lepers as individuals.
As in her previous novels, Ellis expects a lot from her young audience, dropping them into a world very different from their own and daring them not to flinch at its harsh realities. The story is didactic in places, with the lessons at times outpacing the plot, but this is not a huge drawback. Ellis is a passionate and respectful teacher, and Valli a compelling guide for our tour of impoverished Kolkata.
First Descent explores the theme of false assumptions in more complex ways, in keeping with its older intended audience. The hero is 17-year-old Rex Scruggs, a champion kayaker. He longs for the respect of his grandfather, a legendary paddler in his own right, who is credited as the first person to shoot down numerous rivers in South America. The only expedition Gramps failed to complete was a first descent of the Furioso River in Colombia. And that, of course, is where Rex heads.
At first, Rex is so focused on his goal of beating the river that he is oblivious to both the beauty and the danger that surround him. Gradually, he wakes up to the fact that nothing is what it seems – from the maps provided by the Colombian government proclaiming the area safe, to the stories in Grandfather’s journal, which glorify Gramps’s own accomplishments and paint an unflattering picture of the local indigenous people. Just as Valli must choose between the familiarity of the streets and the uncertain promise of a different life, so Rex has to abandon his grandfather’s narrative to navigate his own coming of age.
Interspersed with Rex’s first-person account are chapters told in the third person, focusing on an indigena teenager named Myriam whom Rex hires as a guide. Rex is clearly the hero of the book, but Myriam’s chapters are often more compelling.
In fact, Myriam could be a hero from one of Ellis’s novels. Like Valli and The Breadwinner’s Parvana, her struggle is against forces outside her control – in this case, paramilitaries, rebels, poverty, and prejudice. In such an environment, Rex’s single-minded desire to kayak down a river starts to look frivolous, a fact he himself eventually acknowledges. Still, Myriam remains a hero without a voice: she hijacks the novel, yet never gets to speak to us directly.
First Descent is a dense, ambitious, challenging read; not only does the author pack in loads of information about the plight of indigenous people in Colombia, who are stuck in the midst of a civil war, she also introduces us to the finer points of elite-level kayaking.
It’s a lot to absorb, and the marriage is not always entirely successful; at times, especially near the beginning, all the new information feels like a heavy backpack weighing down the story. Nevertheless, Withers, who has built her reputation as a writer of YA sports adventures, gets things moving quickly enough, and when the action starts to flow, the ride is fast and furious. Fans of Valli and Parvana who graduate to Withers’ book will have a lot to look forward to.