There seems to be a swarm of coming-of-age novels coming to my attention lately dealing with the 1980s. The struggles of the social norms of that era were immense but not unique. And any novel that documents teenagers trying to grow up during that time should reflect not only a reader’s issues with that era but enlighten a reader to the issues of a person belonging to another group. That is what Nadia Bozak did for me in her novel Orphan Love.
Across the highway from the lake there’s a trailer hidden in the bush, far enough back you can’t see it from the road. The man inside thinks this helps keep him and his kid and his wife, before she left him, safe from law and men and Indians, blood brothers and half sisters and anyone else who wants to tear his skin or break his nose, his neck, his hardened heart.
But one morning in spring this stranger comes walking down that bit of lost and empty highway and spots the trailer through the dawn-lit trees. So doing, the stranger crosses the road and disappears into the forest. And with careful, soundless bootsteps creeps up on that hidden trailer, stealing quick peeks in each of its four windows, and then, gun cocked, breaks through its plywood door. Inside there is a little old baby, maybe the last one of its kind. Diaper rotting, skin crawling, and all alone except for its dad, passed out in pissy pants and muddy boots, jacket open and without a shirt on. So the baby and its dad are together soiled and shit-smelling and, though, it’s cold, almost naked. Maybe if that stranger hadn’t come, they would have died out there, the dad and the baby. The dad drinking himself to death, and the baby, meanwhile, dying of thirst. It doesn’t have to be like that. And it isn’t like that anymore, not after the gun-slinging stranger comes busting in on them that morning in spring.
Sadly I had to miss out to hear Bozak at a speaking engagement recently but I was glad I picked up this book. The story deals with a teenager fleeing a beaten-up life in a rugged outpost in northern Ontario, Canada. Along the way she meets up with Dave who is also on the run from an unsettled past. Through the wilds of the north and into the man-made terrain of New York City, they learn about their pain and about themselves.
Dave didn’t sleep much. Still dark, and he was up and creeping around. Sleeping with my eyes not quite shut, in the glow of clear I saw his shadow and I saw that all Dave needed to complete the look of ambush was a knife between his teeth. He stopped when his left boot stopped on a piece of my hair coiled up in the dirt and he stayed very still looking down at me. His boot so close to my poor old head that I could smell the sweat coming from his socks. He was thinking about taking off and leaving me there. And me thinking how it would be ten times worse with him gone. Through the blur of lashes, I watched Dave turn away and go back to the canoe where he slept for maybe as little as four hours. Could see him in the light of the three-quarter moon that had come out of the cloud cover. Dave carried his pack and the suitcase out of the bushes and then out came his bashed-up boat. Trees rustled like he was the wind. He found his flashlight and ran its yellow cast along the belly of the canoe. With his fingers he smoothed out the bandages and patchwork scattered along the body, pressed down on the seams and seeing that maybe his rough-hewn craft was holding, he thumped the bow and then switched out the light. Then Dave did this: he lit a match and held it to the body of the boat, just long enough to leave a burn mark. He lit another match and held it to the peeling bark of a paper birch. It didn’t take long for the tree to catch fire. Leaned back with his hands in his pockets and the hood of his Rotting Christ sweatshirt pulled up over his head, watching the spreading flames.
There is a frank and unapologetic language in this book which makes it a great read. Bozak didn’t confine herself to the rules of grammar or politeness when writing this novel which makes it a brilliant read. It took a bit of time to get through this book – it is at times a difficult story to digest – but it is well crafted.
The forest was already hung with shadows, the still air was decaying like old, wet shit. Walked some minutes, then stopped, unzipped my fly, and pulled down my jeans. Saw black bruises on white thighs, inner and outer, front and back. All the way down, saw scratches and rashes and bug bites, and I thought how ugly I was and how unlike a girl. Then I saw that besides the dirt of the bush, the sweat of the ride, there was blood all over my underwear. Now I’d have to tell Dave I was bear bait. Grabbed up a handful of leaves and just started wiping away at the blood between the legs, thinking here I am with legs worse than any boy’s and I start the rag. Fuck. Especially because I didn’t get a period all the time, not regular like other girls, and especially not out there with the body in shock from all the canoeing and fasting and not sleeping either. It was from being around a boy. And not just any boy, but Dave. A rocker and so often an asshole, and I’d left my poor heart out for him to lick and it felt darker and deeper than anything Slava O’Right had done to me. Didn’t know what was worse – getting soft on a runaway rocker Indian or having a starving spring bear sniff me down and devour me for my skinny meat. Frantic now, and those dirty leaves were getting in all the sticky blood and I was making a mess of myself when I was supposed to be getting clean.
Orphan Love by Nadia Bozak is frank and bold coming-of-age novel. While it is a difficult read at times, getting through the book is a worthwhile experience.