When scheduling demands dictate that 11-year-old Will Sanders will have to spend Wednesday afternoons at his grandmother’s apartment, the last thing he wants to do is tell his friends. At his old school, knowledge that Will’s grandma was the author of children’s picture books with such embarrassing titles as Why Are You Naked? fuelled relentless attacks from the playground bullies. Bespectacled, tuba-playing Will is determined not to risk jeopardizing things with his new pals, Aneesh and Emmaline – and so every Wednesday he invents a new lie to excuse himself from after-school hangouts before heading over to Grandma’s.
There, an old suitcase filled with photos, newspaper clippings, and other ephemera provide the convenient stimulus for his grandmother to share stories from her Winnipeg childhood – one story each Wednesday. Chapters duly alternate between “Will” in the present day, and “Laura” in the 1960s. The “sixties girl” reflections proceed from Laura’s earliest school days at the mercy of angry nuns, through family summers at the lake, to teenage experiments with diet pills and a prom night that didn’t go as planned. Particularly powerful is the chapter about a neighbour who must live with the fallout of losing a husband in the war in Europe (her grown son, now struggling with alcoholism, drives a car into the family home). Meanwhile, an account about babysitting a troublesome child during the Cuban Missile Crisis is handled with some welcome humour, as Laura recalls, “And now it was my job to get Mattie home before a Russian missile sent us off to heaven in a flash of light.”
Despite the rudimentary structure, Driedger’s self-contained chapters – inspired by her own childhood – are well crafted and effective. For all the talk of bullying, there’s less tension in Will’s storyline. He, Aneesh, and Emmaline are consistently polite, articulate, and well-behaved middle-schoolers, and what little tension arises between them is, ultimately, easily resolved. Their dialogue, and some conversations in Laura’s sections, can also tend toward the expository and slightly forced (such as when a couple of kids discuss the poet Emily Pauline Johnson).
Still, what’s missing in narrative tension is made up for by highly evocative vignettes that will appeal to young readers with a taste for the past (history buffs will also appreciate the endnotes that cast extra light on each chapter). And on the final page, a last-minute twist provides a welcome surprise – with excellent sequel potential.