By: Alison Acheson
Coteau Books, 2006, 315 pp, Trade paperback $12.95 CDN
Reviewed by: James Onusko
Mud Girl is a sophisticated and very well written novel that speaks to young readers as equals rather than at them as lessers. Acheson’s writing style is playful, yet powerful. The book moves along at a brisk pace, but it is written with both tenderness and great care. All readers will be able to identify with the confusion and conflict that the main character experiences throughout the novel.
Alison Acheson is a Creative Writing instructor at the University of British Columbia. She holds two degrees from UBC and is a native British Columbian. Apart from instructing at UBC, she teaches online, and offers editorial services to other writers. She has written several books aimed at young readers. She was born in Tsawwassen, British Columbia and continues to live in the lower mainland.
Mud Girl centres on Aba Zytka Jones (Abi), and a summer in which she experiences a series of twists and turns in her life. Abi lives in a small house, right at the edge of the Fraser River; in fact the house is right on the water. Place has great meaning throughout the book and often reflects the way that Abi feels as an outsider in most situations. Her mom has left the family and her dad, in an emotional sense, has abdicated his role as a father to sixteen-year-old Abi following the departure. The family is receiving food from the food bank and her father is collecting welfare, despite indications that he is intelligent and capable of being an excellent worker. Abi is seeing someone casually, Jude, who is a single father, struggling with unwanted fatherhood, full-time employment, and attempting to care for his ailing mother. Amanda, an acquaintance of Jude, befriends Abi. Amanda is both a stabilizing and comforting force in Abi’s challenging life. Amanda owns a small cleaning business and Abi begins working for her as the story progresses. Other characters are significant in the book and among other things, serve to provide context for preceding action to this particular summer.
In this excerpt, Abi is introduced to Amanda’s van that also illustrates some of the profound differences between Abi’s family and Amanda’s, more ‘normal’ family life.
Abi peeks into the back window. Everything’s in there.
“Yep, fully camperized,” Amanda says with a grin as she opens the passenger door. “It’s my mum and dad’s.”
“Your Mum and Dad’s?” The phrase rolls off Abi’s tongue. Does anyone have a Mum-and-Dad? Not a mum or dad, but a Mum-and-Dad?
“Yep.” Amanda closes the door after her. Abi waves to Ernestine, who stands nearby, clutching her knitting bag to her belly. She does have a funnily round little tummy, Abi notices. Abi waves back.
“You live with your Mum-and-Dad? she asks Amanda as she plops into the driver’s seat.
“Oh, yeah. They’re the best, my folks.”
Funny to hear that warmth in her voice. Makes Abi feel even colder somehow.
“We’ve done a lot of camping in this.” She motions to the back, to the miniature stove and sink, the icebox with the Mac-tac front, the nubbly plaid seat cushions with the foam showing through at the corners.
“You and your Mum-and-Dad? Abi asks. She just wants to hear those words from her own mouth, but if her tone is different, Amanda doesn’t seem to notice.
“My brother too,” she adds.
Abi looks at her as she drives. She’s checking her side mirror, changing lanes, all thought on the road. Does she have any idea how lucky she is?
Acheson explores complex themes of family, friendship, young love, loss, and the dilemma of difficult choice. Abi is forced to deal with situations that many would hope that sixteen-year-olds would be free from until many years later, if ever at all. Acheson does not spare the reader from exposure to the ‘grown-up’ choices that teenagers almost universally experience. Nothing is glossed over and readers cannot help but be impressed with the maturity of Abi – she has an inner strength that serves to inspire and induce
I did not find much to quibble with in Acheson’s superb novel. One point is that Abi, at times, does seem nearly superhuman in her abilities to navigate the circumstances that she faces. While she has some amazing support from a few characters in the book, there are moments where she seems too mature for what she is dealing with at more than one part of the novel. Additionally, there is at least one storyline that seems superfluous to the main narrative arc; so much so that it is distracting at points, and may leave some readers wondering why the author spends so much time on these characters and their stories. I do want to emphasize that these are relatively minor in the overall effects of this fine book – it should in no way make prospective readers leery of diving into Mud Girl.
Mud Girl is highly recommended and will be enjoyed by both novice and advanced juvenile readers. Many adult readers will likely find much to enjoy in Acheson’s book. I am confident that readers will enjoy this book as much as I have.
*A copy of Mud Girl was sent to me to read and review by Coteau Books. It was not purchased.