Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!
According to the PEW Research peeps, about 70% of people consider themselves religious in some fashion, whether through traditional Jewish, Muslim or Christian denominations or other neopagan practices like Wicca. For some reason, this is not readily reflected in YA lit, which poses the question, where are all the Baha’i and Baptists, the Confucianists and Catholics, the Jainists and the Jews? Where are the YA Mennonites and Muslims, the Adventists and the Anabaptists? As we see greater numbers of writers writing from their own experiences, in their own voices, it would only make sense that a diversity of faith experiences will appear as well – not in some special, segregated category, but as a normal part of the everyday experiences of some people, informing how and what they think, and in what ways they do and don’t act. Though the jacket copy says Ana is “not your typical teenager,” it is past time to dispense with the idea that there is one, normalized experience of adolescence, and that because this character is raised in faith, she is somehow Vastly Different. < / tinyrant>
Synopsis: A few days after an random act of violence in their village, Ana’s father packs them up, and Ana and her father move from where Ana was born in Colony Felicida in Bolivia to Toronto, Canada. For some reason that’s apparently to be kept secret, the tightly-knit Mennonite community which they once called home is to be forgotten. Now they’re on the trail of Ana’s mother who departed from the colony some years earlier.
Ana doesn’t remember much about her mother, and never understood why she left them, but a good daughter, Ana’s learned not to ask questions her Papa won’t answer. Grappling with culture shock, at first, Ana’s only able to deal with housekeeping and doing what she’s told, anyway. It is a constricted, quiet life, but so far, but it doesn’t last. In Toronto, there are neighbor kids who ask Ana to come outside, and at her father’s urging, she goes. In Toronto, Ana discovers, fourteen year old girls have to go to school, not merely be the one who cooks the food and keeps the house. In Toronto, the girls have TV’s and posters on their walls and listen to bands and wear very different clothes and ride in cars and have computers, and do myriad inexplicable things — and in Toronto, there are posters on the street, and ribbons for a girl named Faith, who has disappeared.
Toronto is somewhat of a mystery.
In the Colony, there were mysteries things as well, Ana realizes. Not that many people disappeared, but there was the mysterious baby, the mysterious planes landing on their long driveway, and then her mother — just gone, and Ana still doesn’t know why. What Ana begins to understand, little by little, is that while there are mysteries, at some point people begin to understand them. She desperately wants to understand.
While nothing overtly dangerous occurs, Ana experiences bullying and some of the nastier elements of high school in the modern world. She begins to see that the world around her operates between what is on the surface, and darker currents beneath, currents into which it is easy to get in over her head. As Ana learns to find her own way, she’s fortunate that a neighbor, Suvi and Suvi’s friend, Mischa befriend her, instructing her on how to get along, and mostly accepting of her non-Canadian quirks. Their world is faster and louder and vastly different than what Ana’s used to — no one speaks Low German, or wears their waist-length, platinum blonde hair pinned in “Princess Leia” buns. No one says their mother is dead when she’s really …left their community and their family, and been gone so long you they can’t remember her.
Though her mother is probably alive somewhere, in a city of several hundred thousand people, Ana isn’t sure how she and her father are going to manage finding a single human being, much less someone who left them years ago, and who maybe wants to stay lost. And, now that they’re in Toronto, Ana’s beginning to lose her father, too. He’s a man with his own secrets, his own darkness, and his silence weighs heavily. What isn’t he telling Ana about her own life? Can she be an onlooker in it, and still have a life? Is now – in Toronto – the time to speak up, and try and steer her own course, in a way she did not in the Colony? This lyrically written novel is a search for identity both internally, and as citizens within the larger culture, as Ana navigates who she’s been told she is, and who she decides she’s going to be.
Observations: I picked up this book specifically because it is, in part, about living in, then leaving a Mennonite community. The author doesn’t provide a window, particularly, into a Mennonite experience in terms of faith practices, etc., but a mirror into one young woman’s path toward self-determination – through the lens of her experience as a Mennonite.
There are some very obvious pitfalls of a girl who has been raised in an insulated, sheltered way experiences when she comes into contact with the larger world. The author doesn’t fall for cheap ploys to shock the reader. However, neither does she give readers as much of a viewpoint on what Ana thinks of everything, but more that she is now having to think of everything. She is described as studying faces from the sheer curiosity of seeing people who don’t look like her, or don’t look like relatives. She knows now that there are groups, such as the LGBTQ kids, the nerds, the cool kids, etc. She begins to understand the sociology of cultures as groups, but like an anthropologist, there isn’t much emotional resonance as she becomes more aware. I found this an interesting way to experience the world with the character – and find it significant that the author studied Social Anthropology at the London School of Economics, and trained in journalism as well. The novel distances the reader at times with this more “I’m just an observer of your culture” feel, yet Ana isn’t an unsympathetic character. Readers will especially cheer for her, as she makes clear-eyed observations about the adults around her and relish the realization that all of the adults in Ana’s life underestimate her. She is better-equipped for the modern world than she thinks she is – possibly unrealistically better – but her quiet triumphs make for satisfying reading.
Conclusion: A quiet, beautifully written, literary novel which I can see being read as part of a classroom experience for history or social studies/sociology, as well as English. Full of evocative prose while keeping a simple narrative intact, this novel is threaded through with gems, giving readers a lot to sift through and discover.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. After September 6th, can find ONCE IN A TOWN CALLED MOTH by Trilby Kent at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent Canadian bookstore near you!