Star Review Compares The Western Light to Huck Finn

Published on Friday December 07, 2012 by The Toronto Star
Read the full article here:
The Western Light by Susan Swan: Review

There is a soupçon of an adolescent Huck Finn and his friendship with the escaped slave Jim in Susan Swan’s portrayal of the young Mouse Bradford and her bond with John Pilkie, a pro-hockey player imprisoned for murdering his wife and child.

Mouse, like Huck, lacks a mother, has spunk and fearlessness and is 12-years-old when we meet her in The Western Light, Swan’s prequel to her earlier novel, The Wives of Bath. It is unlikely Mark Twain entered Swan’s subconscious as she was developing Mouse but the character is as captivating as Huck and Swan’s book is a gallivanting read bound to become a classic, at least on Canadian shelves and in computers.

It is the mid-1950s, when the NHL only had six teams, Queen Elizabeth was still new to the job, TV was in black and white and children ran from yard to yard without adult supervision. Mouse has a shriveled leg, the aftermath of polio which today is unheard of in Canada but was common in the pre-vaccine days. She wears a metal brace which she talks to and names Hindrance.

We see the world of small town Ontario through Mouse, the narrator, who is accompanied on her adventures by her aunt, Little Louie, housekeeper Sal and neighborhood friend, Ben Shulman. Ben, like Mouse, lives on the social periphery of the Georgian Bay town where they live. He has a Jewish background and his father is a psychiatrist, a rare medical specialty in those days. The friendship between Mouse and Ben is emphasized by Swan’s acknowledgement that there was little diversity in the 1950s and social divisions were determined by religion, Catholic or Protestant.

At Easter, John Pilkie is released from Maple Ridge, where the criminally insane were imprisoned, and allowed to attend services at the church where Mouse worships. She is excited by the chance to see him, expressing her adolescent crush on the wayward man, “the dark excitement that goes with somebody like John Pilkie who breaks the rules.”

She shares her writing with him; he encourages her efforts to play hockey, despite her shriveled leg. She feels her friendship with him helps her psychologically ward off the mean kids in school who call her “Peg Leg.”

This is part of her secret life. Usually she indulges in the youthful activities of the day, wearing a Lone Ranger hat and watching Roy Rogers.

Swan vividly recreates that seemingly innocent period in the 1950s, casting the reader back through her brilliant time machine of words, when people still received an evening newspaper on their doorstep and kids traded hockey cards with pictures of Tim Horton and others. “Ben’s most valuable card was Rocket Richard of the Montreal Canadiens who scored his six hundredth goal the year before, and Gordie Howe of the Detroit Red Wings who had scored his four hundredth,” Mouse says.

The Western Light is a great Christmas or Chanukah present, especially for kids who grew up in the 50s.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.