Catherine Macphail,
Dark Waters
(Bloomsbury, 2003)

When I'm foolishly let loose in a bookstore, I gravitate towards the young-adult fiction. Not because YA books are an easier read or less dry linguistically than most of the adult fare, but because they so often provide a more daring read than the often staid, hidebound tales of adult fiction, with its focus on outward problems and thematic quests. It seems children are more often allowed to wrestle with the more perplexing issues of identity and morality that can turn mealy and hypocritical in most adult tales. Catherine Macphail proves that point with Dark Waters. The book contains murder, theft, battles of family loyalty and societal expectations, issues of class and morality, all bound in a few months of the life of preteen Colcannon McAnn.

Col is introduced as a child largely trapped by his circumstances, too young to realize the walls being built around him. His life is defined by loyalty to his criminal older brother and kind, overwhelmed mother. The McAnns live in a small Scottish town that already holds the family in contempt for their father's life of crime, and the family returns the sentiment. Col has already begun following in the tracks of his older brother and deceased father. Still, he's at an age when many people might believe he could be saved from the faults of his background.

Instead, Col saves someone else, a wealthy couple's son he happens to find playing carelessly on thin ice. That one act of heroism opens the door to the supernatural, introduces two families to strange experiences of each other's lives, changes the town's opinion of the whole McAnn family and forces Col to begin changing his beliefs about himself.

Children in rough spots are too often portrayed as saintly innocents or devious junior thugs, while the essential confusion and simple motives of the age are lost. In Col McAnn, MacPhail has created a believably good kid. He tries to live up to his own high standards, while struggling to learn the far more complex moral guidelines of the world and dealing with the ambiguities that put even the most mature heart to the test. She understands that most bad behavior, especially in children, is not seen as wrong by the child doing it. Col's worst and best actions are all shown as having sympathetic and even noble motives; he lies to protect his brother, disobeys outside authority to obey his mother and generally behaves himself to the best of his ability.

Col's journey into heroism is more a story of realization than of redemption. Never having lived with true malice, he can't be saved by a simple change of heart. His new life has to be earned instead through slow, painful changes of thought, fueled by new experiences he earns through his heroism on the ice.

There's a murder-mystery to be solved around the loch, and an understated layer of fantasy that serves the story without defining it. But the true meat of the story comes from the changes in Col and his family. It's a subtle, surprising tale of personal change, with a sideways look at societal constraints and prejudices softened by the essential narrowness of a child's world. Required to keep the story within the supposed attention span of junior high students, MacPhail has trimmed Dark Waters to its swiftest, neatest form, so that the narrative flows swiftly and unstoppably to a conclusion that offers hope and a moment of calm, but no guarantees. It may be a young adult's book, but many who are technically mature will find this book offers them room for growth.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 17 April 2004

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