Thursday, December 12, 2013
By NANCY GRAPE
Here's a question for you: Would you rather be a 13-year-old boy riding the bus from Portland to New Jersey on a snow-filled night, or be snug at home with a book by Maine writer Sis Deans of Gorham that will take the trip for you, generously filling it with teenage angst, insight and adventure?
"RIDING OUT THE STORM." By Sis Deans. Henry Holt and Co. 161 pages. $16.99.
That combination awaits you in Deans' 10th book, "Riding Out the Storm." More than anything, this story reminds me of a good independent movie. It is well-crafted, fast-moving and purposeful. It's also a keen reminder that being 13 isn't easy.
Taking the bus in "Riding Out the Storm" is young Zach Andersen, traveling with his grandfather to visit his brother. That brother, Derek, older than Zach by three years, is at the center of Zach's life.
As the younger boy tells us, Derek is smooth in all the places that Zach is rough. He is at ease in athletic and social situations, making his way through teenage brambles that snag Zach every time.
However, Derek's strength comes hand-in-hand with a problem that has dominated his family for years. Derek is bipolar, and his mental condition requires costly care from a medical insurance system that protects itself better than it protects families like Derek's.
The drain goes on. The family provides all the care it can. Assets wither and dry up, taking the family's middle-class lifestyle with them.
Derek becomes a ward of the state. He is shipped off to a treatment facility in New Jersey. Contact between the two brothers is punctuated by months of loneliness.
And Zach is learning bitter lessons. "When I grow up I'm gonna be a millionaire," he tells us. "If you got money, no one gives you grief. You can buy what you want, be what you want, live how you want."
Now, as he boards the bus in Portland, what Zach wants is to see his brother, confirm his reality and be with him again. Everything else proceeds from there.
Zach's bus ride develops fairly quickly into a two-person connection between him and a girl he nicknames Purplehead. He opens up, and the feelings that are crowding his young head come spilling out. He discovers the power of compassion. And he puts it to work.
Both young people have known hard times. They help one another heal. Both have a complex skein of opportunities and experiences ahead. They help one another prepare for them.
Deans understands the nature and needs of young teenagers. But she also understands something else. Namely, that staying in touch with the memories and lessons of those early teen years can strengthen our ability to cope in the years that follow.
Readers of all ages can reap the benefit without leaving home.
Nancy Grape writes book reviews for The Maine Sunday Telegram.