A thank you to J. H. Gordon Books of Hamilton, Ontario, Canada for making this book available (Click here for their website)
We tend to be very private about our teenage years. All that growing up and enduring whatever issues that came up was hard on our psyches yet – in many cases – we tend to bury those issues deep inside us. That isn’t healthy. A good coming-of-age novel can force us to open up about those years and come to terms about our experiences. And one such novel that can help us relate to those years is Brent van Staalduinen’s Saints, Unexpected.
I woke up on the couch with an earache, but able to hear again. The sun hadn’t yet risen so the living room was quiet and dark. Someone had turned the lights off while I slept. I got up, tied my hair back and padded into the kitchen. In the dim light cast by the range hood, as the fridge hummed its quiet, insistent tune, I spooned back some cereal, holding the bowl above the sink to protect the hardwood floor from soggy drippings. I didn’t look any different, I thought, staring at a ghostly, suspended reflection of myself against the dark city outside. But should I? An occasional set of headlights zipped through my dark reflection, racing down King like impatient, earthbound stars.
The story deals with fifteen-year-old Mutton who is spending the summer helping out her mother’s thrift store. What should be a routine day at work is shattered when Mutt is robbed at gunpoint then in turn the family is sent into a spiral of events that just seem to much for her. Her father looses his job. Her first love is found and then dumps her via a text message. And a baby brother has a serious illness that just might claim his life. Mutt must deal with each situation as best as she can. But at times, it can be too much for her.
Have you ever missed someone who is still right in front you you? I missed my mother. Where was the old hippie, sunshine and light, happy to dispense unsolicited organic medical advice along with Second Chances’ second-hand stuff? The one who looked forward to the Niche’s daily offerings as much as Leich and I did? It was like life had become fine sand paper, and she hadn’t noticed the abrasion until it had worn through the skin and drawn blood. It wasn’t just the money – she was happy to break even while Dad paid for the regular expenses – she probably saw the closing of Razza’s and Luigi’s as a loss of something bigger than rent revenue. Solidarity, perhaps, like they were in a good fight together. The terror of her kids being robbed while working in her downtown store. Wu’s sickness worsening the abrasion.
She came out of the back room with that day’s Niche offering, a heavy -looking, tarnished candlestick, and put it on a shelf without making sure it would fit. It ended up half on, half off an antique drink coaster and leaned precariously into the aisle. She was distracted, like she hoped her shadow might take care of the chores that needed doing. She even averted her eyes and took an extra step to the side as she passed the bullet hole as if they had the same polarity and were pushing away from each other.
An important element in this book is the setting. Mutton’s home town is Hamilton, Ontario and van Staaldulnen has documented the city well through her eyes. Hamilton is a unique city and Mutton’s experiences with both the positive and the negative elements of the city give the story a realistic feel to it.
At the eastern end of Gore Park, a couple of old cannons stood guard, cold hard sentinels that spoke of a simpler time when enemies were obvious, alliances clear. I imagine they’re still there, pointing along King like an invasion from Stoney Creek might be imminent. The statue about them, a weepy tribute to Sir John A., has moved a few times and has been part of Hamilton’s downtown lore for over a hundred years. But those cannons are a mystery to me. How far had they travelled? Had they ever been fired? I’ve set a number of my stories right there in that park and have created worlds around that monument. but the truth behind those cannons? I have no idea.
Wu loved them. He didn’t care about their history or their pedigree or whether they had defended our shores; he’d run around the monument’s granite base oohing and yelling, boom! Boom! Boom! I’d lift him up and he would climb all over, sitting astride them and imagining himself riding into battle against conjured foes. He’d lay his head against the cold iron for minutes at a time, his wrinkled cheek taking on the subtle texture of the ancient metal, listening to the park and traffic sounds, imagining who knows what.
Later that day, I took Wu out to the cannons. It had been a simple thing to volunteer to babysit. Yes, I used my baby brother as a salve for my pain – he always made me feel better, so why not? But he wasn’t entirely himself. When we got to the end of the park and he saw the cannons, he smiled, but didn’t demand to be taken out of the stroller. He had a lovely sparkle in his eyes as he stared at the statue and the big guns, and part of me knew that he should have been laughing and climbing and pretending. In the end, the outing made me feel worse.
Saints, Unexpected by Brent Staalduinen is a stunning first novel and unique coming-of-age story. It is a read well worth re-reading and pondering over.