John Lekich is a finalist in the running for the Sheila A. Egoff Children’s Literature Prize (under the umbrella of the annual BC Book Prizes) for his novel The Prisoner of Snowflake Falls. I commented on the book here before its launch and reprise it in honour of the announcement.
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The Prisoner of Snowflake Falls is a book rich with simple complexities and deadpan one-liners that brilliant comics will wish they had written.
John Lekich, author of King of the Lost and Found and The Losers’ Club brings us another in what might now be qualified as a streak of young adult fiction featuring exceptional adolescents. Though each has much to offer the world, none quite fits in. That’s exactly what motivates them and the essence of their charm.
Readers who love this book will be ones who love the suspense of a stakeout. Anything might happen. Or ones charmed by a good kid gone just a little bit wrong, a kid who gets arrested for baking cookies. (Without giving away spoilers, you can get arrested for that. Henry Thelonious Holloway did.)
This is fiction that I wish were targeted to adults. Not because the book might tempt youth to glamorize crime or emulate Holloway, but because it takes certain experience and perspective to fully appreciate its deeper meaning and elegant writing. Lekich is a writer’s writer. No question. That just might escape a younger reader’s notice. Then again, there isn’t a kid alive who doesn’t know sorrow, loneliness or defeat of some kind.
Holloway, the book’s central character is an orphaned juvenile who lives alone in a tree house. He has several identities as well as a long list of residential break and enters and auto thefts to his credit. However, Holloway is no angry, amoral anarchist.
Using his ill-got gains to outfit his tree house, eat, and survive without adult care, Holloway also cultivates his interest in the “finer things of life.” While his mother was alive she was “a big believer in savoring life’s more elegant moments.” When Holloway gets unbearably lonely for her he attends an opera, a concert or visits a gallery to be “just a little closer to her spirit.”
The lazy but brilliant Holloway figures, “If I’m going to do anything that involves actual effort, I want it to be my own decision.” Though he qualifies for a prestigious school on scholarship, Holloway sees through the opportunity and the future it promises as little more than “prison with neckties.”
Without parents, Holloway is disadvantaged by his isolation, his socio-economic class, and his Uncle Andy whose unsavory associates school him in crime. As the book progresses, life is complicated by a sequence of unfortunate turns. As Uncle Andy observes, “Bad luck has put more clever crooks in jail faster than you can say: ‘Do you hear sirens?’”
From experience Holloway understands that “…life is the biggest con artist of them all.” And sure as not, “…fate will hand you a surprise that is virtually guaranteed to knock you on your butt.” However, Holloway also has multiple gifts including “a natural ability for solving honest problems in a totally dishonest way.”
That said, Holloway always acts with honour. He does not steal too much. He appreciates that he is a guest in someone else’s home and leaves the place like a campsite—a little better than when he found it (minus a bit of food or cash, of course). On one occasion, when he realizes what it is for, Holloway adds money to the sum of cash he finds in a drawer. He rationalizes, “Most of it was money I stole from other places…. I wasn’t returning it or anything. I was just sort of recycling it.”
As the judge on his case observes, “You know, for someone so schooled in dishonesty, you can be refreshingly straightforward.”
When Holloway is sentenced to the island community of Snowflake Falls to serve his time with the Wingate family as part of a special Second Chance Program, he thinks he might enjoy a little peaceful boredom for a change.
However, the chronic loner is thrust into family life that sometimes feels more like vengeance. Not only that, Holloway has to take on two part-time jobs and try to reform. But Snowflake Falls proves to be a wackily redemptive place. Even Uncle Andy, when he shows up with his criminal coterie notices. “Good citizenship is spreading among my associates like some sort of terrible disease.”
There are some who criticize the writing, specifically the break and enter scenes, for the passive voice as a missed opportunity to create excitement. Alas, they miss the point. Addicted as we have become to never-ending action in shorter and shorter time frames as delivered by movies and television, there is nothing exciting about crime. It’s just another dull, repetitive job a person—in this case a kid—can get stuck in—like jobs with neckties. That’s something Holloway hasn’t figured out and an example of the story themes more readily apparent to adult readers (minus a few reviewers, of course). For Holloway, getting arrested is no different from getting fired. He’s lost his job and faces the loss of his freedom as well—as if being an orphan, lonely and homeless aren’t trauma enough.
The Prisoner of Snowflake Falls reverberates with the genuine, essential stuff. Stuff that (unlike all that’s mean and wrong with the world) never makes the evening news. Profound meaning can be found in the smallest gesture. Echoes of the ages resound in the philosophical, social and moral ideas.
Every character is flawed but inherently noble. Every life is circumscribed, in some way imprisoned within the dilemmas that shape daily existence. Every choice is a choice of conscience. Every option has a price. Every action says something about who a person is: someone who “needs the right excuse to do the wrong thing” or someone who must “make all sorts of humiliating sacrifices” to do what’s right.