Okay, this is a serious book, so let's get serious and pretend that Olivia Newton John's Physical didn't start playing in my head the second I said "let's get serious".
How to Tend a Grave by Jocelyn Shipley
Published: March 2012 by Great Plains Teen Fiction
Genre: Contemporary YA
Page Count: 178
Part of a series? No.
Amazon / Book Depository / Indiebound
Summary (from goodreads): When Liam’s mom is killed, he thinks life can’t get any worse. He’s wrong. He’s forced to live with a grandfather he’s never known, in a small town where kids called Youth and Crime lead the local gang. They’re posers, but they mean trouble, and their favourite hangout is the cemetery where Liam’s mom is buried. But the cemetery is also where Liam meets Harmony, a gorgeous but unusual girl who records the names of all the babies buried there long ago. Besides their grief, both Liam and Harmony have secrets.
The very different stories of these two fifteen-year-olds interweave brilliantly in this fast-paced, engaging and unforgettable novel about family, love and healing.
Review: Little bit of background - if you don't know (and you may not), Great Plains Publications is an indie Canadian publisher and they publish YA under the Great Plains Teen Fiction label. And now you know something new!
How to Tend a Grave is told through the alternating POVs of Liam and Harmony. Liam loses his mom at the beginning of the book and, through Harmony's diary entries, we learn that she has recently had a late-term miscarriage. The book deals largely with the process of them both grieving. I kind of have a lot of mixed feelings about it. I liked a lot of it, but I also had some issues with it. I thought that the Harmony parts, being that they were in first person, were much stronger than Liam's third person parts. His parts tended to be kind of rushed with not enough time to really get into his characterization or motivation. In fact, the whole book could have done with expanding a lot of scenes. This easily could have been a 300 page book and it would have been a lot better, I think.
Plot Talk: The plot had some very unique aspects. Liam's plot wasn't entirely unique - dead parent, move to new town, get into trouble - but his mother being a sex worker was something that I don't really see that often. And I really actually liked how the author presented that. His mom wasn't a drug addict or anything, and, while Liam hated that she was gone a lot at night and wasn't exactly comfortable with the idea of his mother having sex at all, it was treated respectfully and she wasn't really shamed for her choices for most of the book, besides when Liam latched onto it as part of his grieving process.
But the part that I thought was absolutely unique was Harmony's plot. Her POV comes in the form of journal entries. She's almost sixteen and she's dealing a recent late-term miscarriage. What's unique, I think, is that she has such mixed feelings about it. She's grieving, she's sad, she wants the baby back, but she's relieved, she's guilty, she's guilty about being relieved, she knows she probably didn't want to be a teen mom. It's a really interesting story that I actually would have loved a lot more of in the book.
Characters: The biggest characters are Liam and Harmony. Liam, again, is dealing with the recent loss of his mom. Unfortunately, I think because of the rushed pacing and maybe even the choice to use third person in writing his POV, he comes off kind of flat. You don't really know that much about him at the end of the book. His motivations in going along with the Youth 4 Crime gang is vague and doesn't make sense. His character could have been a lot deeper and more complex, and I'm disappointed it wasn't.
Harmony's character seemed a lot more developed, which is funny because she got fewer chapters. Maybe it was because she had interests and stuff, or because we learned more about her parents, I'm not sure. Maybe it was just because her POV was in first person. But you felt like you knew Harmony more, and her voice was much stronger than Liam's. And I hate to say it, but she was honestly just more interesting than Liam.
I also thought it was a very strong point that she talked pretty frankly about her miscarriage. Her journal entries are addressed to her lost baby, suggested as a grief tool by a counsellor. I think it was unique that, while obviously it was sad and scary and everything, she didn't gloss over the medical side of the miscarriage, if that makes sense. She talked about how she bled without it sounding like a horror movie, about having medical procedures, about how she didn't want to see the baby. It's not unemotional, mind you. But it rings very true to life. It feels like how a fifteen year old girl might react in that situation, even her slightly-odd coping methods.
Harmony's parents were imperfect. They put a lot of pressure on her to keep the baby even though she wasn't sure she wanted to - and in fact was at one point very sure she didn't want to. Harmony even states that she felt her parents made the choice for her because they wanted another chance at having a kid, since they'd only been able to have her. They are also grieving throughout the book, and it takes most of it for their relationship to be better at all. I actually wish there had been more about them healing, maybe even a confrontation since Harmony had a lot of feelings hidden.
Liam's grandfather was pretty neat. I liked the way he and Liam bonded over his garden. I do again wish that they'd had more screentime, though. He's another one who suffered from the book being so short.
Cons, complaints, bad stuff, etc.: The voice, especially in Liam's POV, is rough sometimes. There are a lot of scenes that really could have been expanded to deepen the characterization and it does end up feeling rushed because of that and some characters come off shallow.
Okay, this next part is going to be a little spoilery. Not terribly much, but a little. Skip it if you want, but it shouldn't ruin anything. Why is everything that's a con a spoiler? Alright. So it comes out at one point that there was a forty-five year old who had an affair with a seventeen year old. Who was his student, as he was her history teacher. And this character's father says this:
"If I'd known at the time... and I didn't. And he swears it was mutual. Which doesn't excuse him, but I didn't. And he swears it was mutal. Which doesn't excuse him, but he might not be completely to blame. You have to realize that (character) was seductive."NO. This is victim blaming. I don't care what the age of consent was (and yes, in 1996, it was stupid in Canada and way too low as far as I'm concerned). When you are forty-five, you cannot have sex with your seventeen year old student and call it consensual. That student is a child who you are in a positition of authority over. I just... I had a lot of problems with that and I didn't blame the character who ended up being enraged and disgusted by it.
PG-13 stuff: The afore mentioned spoilery part. Harmony's miscarriage is discussed frankly, along with the conception (which she does not remember - trigger warning on that). Liam's mother is a sex worker and that's also discussed frankly. There is, weirdly, not a lot of language going on. There's some violence.
Cover comments: I really like the cover. The contrast of the pink of the roses against the mostly grey cover is lovely. It's also very presentative of both plots. The gravestone being Liam's plot, the mobile being more of Harmony's. It's beautifully designed and absolutely eye-catching.
Conclusion: I wanted to like this one so much more than I did! I love finding great Canadian Lit and I really thought it sounded amazing. Unfortunately, it really suffered from being so short and such quick pacing, and Liam's chapters were weak. Because I did like Harmony's chapters a lot, I'm going to give this a three out of five.
- This is set in the fictional town of Dunlane, Ontario. There are, however, ghost towns named Dunblane in both Ontario and Saskatchewan, apparently, and a Dunblane in Scotland. And sad things happened there.
- It's mentioned that Harmony's mom is part Asian, so Harmony is biracial. Diversity, yay.
- Worst gang name ever.
Alright, what do you guys think about this one?
Peace and cookies,