Thursday, February 27, 2014

Counting Back From Nine by Valerie Sherrard

This touching novel-in-verse explores themes of betrayal, forgiveness and self-acceptance.

Laren Olivier has been seeing the boyfriend of her best friend, Nina for weeks. Laren has been sneaking around with Scott, hoping that Nina and her other friends have not noticed. She is overwhelmed by guilt and the lies she has told her friends, Nina, Morgan and Angie. She knows she has broken the cardinal rule of friendship.

When Laren tells Nina and apologizes to her, her confession not surprisingly, results in the loss of her longtime friend. She is shunned at school and defriended on facebook by Morgan and Angie. An outcast at lunch, Laren is befriended by Christine Oaken and her friend, Denise (Dee).At first Laren is not impressed that she is reduced to eating lunch with the Outcasts but that will eventually change.

Laren's world shifts dramatically again when her father is in a minor car accident on March 15. Laren and her family go to visit her father in the hospital and he is fine. However, he unexpectedly dies the next day. Both Laren and her younger brother, Jackson, have trouble coping with his death.

Then one day a seemingly innocent comment by a classmate throws Laren's world into even more turmoil. Tessa Landau, tells Laren that she witnessed Laren's father's accident and her mother being placed on a stretcher. But Laren's mother wasn't in her father's car at the time and Laren believes this is just her classmate wanting attention. However, days later she finds a note stuffed in her locker about her father and the woman passenger. Laren vaguely recalls the nurse mentioning a woman passenger and she decides that she needs to find who this person is because she might be able to tell her more about her father's final day alive.

When Laren confronts her mother about the mysterious passenger, her mother refuses to talk about it, leaving Laren to suspect the worst. She wonders who this unknown woman is whom no one will talk about. So she decides she will learn the identity of the woman from her Aunt Rita. During this time, Laren's family is struggling to cope with Jackson who is acting out by refusing to eat meat. As well Laren begins seeing a private psychologist, Dr. Socorro, who comes to the school one day per week.

As the months pass by and the school year ends, summer begins and Laren gradually works through her anger and her grief over her father's death. With the start of the new school year, Laren's relationship with Scott begins to show its true nature and she begins to see that their relationship was built on a foundation of lies and deceit. Can Laren forgive her father for what has happened but more importantly can she forgive herself?

Valerie Sherrard has crafted a brilliant novel in which the main character's revelations about her own behaviour lead to forgiveness and healing towards her deceased father. Laren realizes that her so-called "harmless" flirtation with Scott was anything but, that she knew it and she behaved badly. She questions whether this lapse in judgement means she is forever untrustworthy. She vows she will not be like her father. However, it is her mother who makes her reconsider this point of view when she tells her that her father once remarked that nothing is ever perfect but that we find the good and focus on that.

What helps Laren recognize that good in her father are the nine memories of her and her father that she reflects on through the story and that give the novel its title, Counting Back From Nine. In all those memories her father was there for her each and every time. Will Laren allow one lapse in judgement erase all of that?

Laren also discovers the meaning of true friendship too with Christine and Dee. When all her friends bailed after she made a mistake, Christine and Dee are there for her through the year she is recovering from her father's death and especially when she leaves Scott who has already moved on to another girl. They don't judge her, they are simply there for her.

Sherrard's free verse manages to convey the essence of each character in a remarkable way while presenting some important lessons about life. Laren is a young person who has been taught to live with integrity and when she fails, she eventually must confront her own actions. From her we learn that sometimes in our lives we deny the truth in order to justify the choices we've made.

Laren's mother has tried to live her life the best she can; she's been a good mother and a good wife so when Laren blames her mother for her father's actions her mother tells her that she can't be responsible for Laren's father's choices.

"Whatever your father did
or didn't do, was his choice.
I will not be accused or
blamed or held responsible
for his actions."

The beautiful cover combined with a great opening hook to grab young readers make Counting Back From Nine a popular choice for book clubs and reluctant readers. But really this is a story that all readers will enjoy. Valerie Sherrard is an award winning Canadian author who currently lives in New Brunswick. Counting Back From Nine  has been shortlisted for the Governor General's Awards in the Children's Text category, shortlisted for the 2013-2014 Red Maple Award and winner of the 2013 Horn Book Award in the Juvenile category. Sherrard has stated that she first wrote Counting Back From Nine as prose but then rewrote it as a novel in verse. So very glad she did so! It's wonderful to read well written fiction for young people. Well done!

Book Details:
Counting Back From Nine by Valerie Sherrard
Markham, ON: Fitzhenry & Whiteside    2013
198 pp.

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