Ottawa Citizen

Gimme shelter

Coming-of-age tale creates memorable teens

- TRACY SHERLOCK

SHELTER By Frances Greenslade Random House Canada, $29.95

B.C. author Frances Greenslade’s first novel Shelter is about the basic necessitie­s of life: food, water and shelter. One might add to that list a mother’s love, a critical piece of a good life.

Shelter is about two girls, Jenny and Maggie, whose father has died and whose mother Irene has left them as boarders with a family friend in the B.C. town of Williams Lake. Maggie, the book’s narrator, is the tougher of the two, although she’s the younger.

As her mother leaves them, she says to Maggie: “I know Jenny’s the older one, but I’m going to rely on you. You were right when you said you know how to take care of yourself. I don’t have to worry about you.”

Maggie’s reaction is more telling: “She must have meant it as a compliment, a way to get me to look at myself as something other than a helpless child. But when she said it, smiling at me softly, her face open like a wish, it felt more like a recognitio­n of a weakness I had, a thing I’d always have to live with, like a harelip.”

As the months go by and Irene doesn’t return, the girls are forced to grow up, perhaps more quickly than they might have otherwise.

Abandoned by their mother, left in the care of a woman named Beatrice, whom they had never met before being dropped off at her house, the two girls barely manage to eke out their teenage lives. They get jobs — Maggie at a gas station, Jenny at a restaurant — patch their jeans and survive off the kindness of Bea, who seems to not quite know what to do with them.

The tale is funny, heartwarmi­ng and tragic, with details ranging from the toys and fashions popular with girls in the 1970s — Wrangler jeans and Nancy Drew books — to the hallucinat­ions and chaos of mental illness.

There is friendship, storytelli­ng and the legacy of family history here, all wrapped up in a coming-of-age story that takes place in the wilderness of British Columbia, Williams Lake, Vancouver and Bella Coola. Maggie tells us: “Jenny said, ‘ We should look for her.’ I said, ‘She’s the mother.’ When I said it, I didn’t know the power those few words would take on in our lives. They had the sound of truth, loaded and untouchabl­e. But they became an anchor that dragged us back from our most honest impulses. We waited for her to come to get us and she never did.”

Greenslade has created two memorable and likable characters in Jenny and Maggie; their bare-bones tale of survival will touch readers, and likely stay with them a long time.

 ??  ?? Frances Greenslade
Frances Greenslade

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