Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Reader's Diary #513- Cathleen With: Having Faith in the Polar Girls' Prison

The worst thing about Cathleen With's Having Faith in the Polar Girls' Prison is the title. Faith is the daughter of Trista, a teenager who has landed herself in a juvenile detention centre. Faith is a fine choice for a name, but used this way in the title is a bit too cheeky for my liking. Plus, when you read the book, you realize that With has effectively summed up her theme: hope in the unlikeliest of places. As themes go, it's a respectable one, but having it spelled out in the title seems like cheating, like not giving the reader enough credit to figure it out on his own. However, there are plenty of great books with lousy titles. Carson McCullers' The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and Percy Janes' House of Hate both spring to mind.

Still, the problems with Having Faith in the Polar Girls' Prison don't end with the title. There's also the distraction of Trista's poor grammar. In one way I respect With's brave choice to write in this way: a stream of consciousness style presenting Trista's grammar as she would have thought it. Initially I questioned why With didn't go all out and spell words incorrectly as well, but once I began thinking of With as merely a transcriber of thoughts, I understood: Trista has poor grammar, With is a good speller. However, there's also a question of authenticity. It's not as brave that With chose to set her book in the fictional town of Jackfish Bay. Supposed to be about halfway between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk, With has created a town in which their atrocious grammar is the least of their problems. Not only does With avoid offending Inuvik residents (where she used to live) with a poor portrayal of their town, she also avoids anyone accusing her grammar choices of being unbelievable. Almost. I'm reminded of Annie Proulx's The Shipping News in which, story merits aside, she butchered the Newfoundland dialect, unbeknownst to readers unfamiliar with the island. I've taught in 3 Northern communities now and while I've noticed differences in grammar, I've never encountered anything remotely as terrible as Trista's. Being halfway being Inuvik and Tuk, one would assume the grammar of Jackfish Bay would be similar to those two places, and if so, they surely have the worst grammar in all of Canada.

Fortunately, the distraction was short-lived for me and I was soon able to adapt to the grammar, sometimes even forgetting there were problems until I intentionally looked for them. There is something to be said for the way With used the grammar to reinforce her point about hope in unlikely places. Despite Trista's obvious trouble with the rules of the English language, she still has a way with words, often expressing beautiful insight. This is a coup for With, that she could work so well within these confines, even if they are confines she herself has set up.

But for most readers, as was the case with me, With's major coup will be to instill a sense of empathy for a character most would not suspect. Faint of heart readers should be fairwarned that it is an emotional juggernaut with descriptions of abuse of just about every kind and the ramifications. But it's not gratuitous and personally I think we need more such books. It might take twice as many lighthearted books to balance things out, but that's okay.


Barbara Bruederlin said...

I'm not quite certain where you stand on this book. Obviously it's one that draws a lot of ambivalence from its readers, and I'm not entirely sure I am ready to tackle that.

Wanda said...

The story certainly sounds like one I'd be drawn to and I'd probably pick it up if I spied it on a shelf.
However, I've picked my way through a fair bit of inventive spelling, language, and grammar stumbling blocks lately ... I'd tuck it away as a someday read.

John Mutford said...

Barbara: Sorry, I should have been clearer. Basically, I had issues with the book, but was able to get past them and enjoy it, despite its flaws.

Wanda: Despite my reservations, I would recommend it.

NIko Moskiou said...

I know Cathleen personally,to be fair I think her skills as a auther are remarkable, To critizise the book for its title and grammar choice is a bit childish, I know this book to have a powerfull message and is a great read.

John Mutford said...

Nikolas: No, those criticisms are more than fair. To pick on your horrendous spelling would be childish.