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The Lottery

by Beth Goobie

I recently heard cultural historian Marc Aronson discussing his research into the Salem witch trials of 1692. He made the point that among many conflicting theories as to the mindsets of the parties involved, the one indisputable fact is that the accusations of witchcraft were initiated by young girls. Girl gangs, adolescent cruelty, the power of intimidation – none of this is new.

In The Lottery Beth Goobie tells the deeply disturbing yet timeless story of the scapegoat. The mechanics of the scapegoating procedure in this case are tidily explained in the novel’s opening lines: “Every student at Saskatoon Collegiate knew about the lottery. It was always held in the second week of September, during Shadow Council’s first official session. Rumor had it that a coffin containing the name of every S.C. student was placed in front of the blindfolded Shadow president. The lid was lifted, the president dipped a hand among the shifting, whispering papers, and a name was pulled.” Following the draw, the “winner” is shunned for the entire school year. Friendless, isolated, and quickly demoralized, the student becomes a stooge of the Shadow Council, a group that disguises itself as a service organization but is really an intimidation ring.

Goobie’s protagonist is Sal. A scroll inside her clarinet case informs her of the results of the lottery. She is the outcast. The main plot of the novel is thus kick-started. Sal sees her friends melt away. She is disbelieving, angry, and then despairing. Goobie limns the complexities and pain of this situation with clarity and originality. Nothing that Sal is required to do seems that serious on the surface, more in the nature of high school pranks, but Goobie shows us how Sal’s escape routes are cut off one by one, how her sources of comfort and strength fade away. No adult reading this story would ever again say to a teenager, “Just say no.” We see Sal afflicted with hostage syndrome and beginning to adore Willis, the manipulative president of the Shadow Council. We see her lose her bearings in every area of her life and finally come to herself again, mainly via music.

Woven into this story are two other plots. One involves Sal’s relationship with Bryden, her fellow third clarinetist and best friend. Wise-cracking musical slackers, they goof around and tell each other the truth until the trauma of the lottery exposes an aspect of their friendship they’ve both been avoiding, the fact that it is tipping over into the sexual. Goobie paints the classic romance dilemma, the choice between glamorous bad boy and familiar good guy, in fresh colours. Meanwhile, Sal is also dealing with the suicide of her father some years before – a death for which, against all logic, she feels responsible – and a secret that her otherwise supportive older brother is keeping with regard to the lottery.

The year 2002 could be characterized, in the world of young adult fiction, as the year of gangs and paternal suicide. But nobody writes like Goobie. Her style is baroque and edgy. Her arsenal of metaphor is unique. There is nothing easy or genial in the world she depicts. In The Lottery these strengths are most apparent in the first half of the book. Here her writing is just odd enough to pull you up short and make you rethink the situation you are observing. She cuts through cliché.

In the early days of being the scapegoat Sal walks around with her eyes cast down: “she’d been developing a hefty visual preference for floors. They were a comforting architectural structure, always there when you needed them. In fact, the floor was a great friend that never betrayed you or suddenly took off, leaving you standing on thin air.” She notes her brother’s sentimental nature: “Dusty had a heart like a cooked beet – soft, the color of a deep bruise.”

But as the emotional temperature of the plot rises, the style runs a bit amok. Clusters of metaphor blur the meaning and dissipate the suspense: “her brain was a collection of bare wires, white hot and fused into hyper-drive. All she knew was that she had to do this or something inside her, some fine rare specimen of hope, would go extinct. This was the DNA of choices, the decision that could bring her back to her truest self.”

Sal’s voice is entirely convincing in the early parts of the story, both in dialogue and in interior monologue. But she falls into therapeutic language by the end, saying to her brother, “Thank you too, for helping me to live inside the question,” and saying of her own situation, “she was finally realizing, it was her perspective that mattered the most. Ultimately, it was her own fear or desire that would lock her in or allow her to open to the utter possibility of herself.” This is true, but we already knew it from Goobie’s careful depiction of Sal’s behaviour.

Goobie takes risks. She can be a frustrating writer, by turns perceptive and opaque, but her books always demand a serious critical reading. We can be grateful that her challenging novels are published in this conservative, series-driven publishing climate. There is an integrity to her particular vision that leaves me ever-curious about her next book.