Wednesday, May 15, 2013
Book Review: Anthem for Jackson Dawes by: Celia Bryce
My Review: Anthem for Jackson Dawes is a quiet little novel that had the potential to pack a strong punch with its challenging topic and themes, but somehow fell short on its delivery. Characters weren't fully developed, and the story itself was just coming together when the author decided to wrap things up quicker than you can blink. That being said, there is no denying Celia Bryce is a talented writer. The poems at the beginning and the end of the book are beautiful (and make more sense once the story is over) and despite me wishing for more, I did like how the scenes were purposely short, almost giving it a journal-type feel.
The story is set somewhere in the UK, so for those who are from the US, just go into the novel with an open mind. It's not a difficult read by any means, but there may be words or phrases that aren't familiar. Thirteen year old Megan, who has a brain tumor, arrives at the hospital to start treatment. It only takes her a few moments to digest the fact that she has literally walked into a cancer ward for babies and little kids: "Toys being banged. Something rattling. Another thing chiming. Whirring. Squeaking. Somewhere to the right there was a baby crying." She is outraged that she will be spending the next several days in a "kiddie ward". She even thinks to herself: "Where were the other patients? People like her? People her age?" Perhaps she asked that question too soon because that's when Jackson Dawes comes barging into her life, the only other person around her age staying on the same ward. Megan immediately dislikes him, thinking him rude, obnoxious, and the thing that irritates her the most-- why and how can he be so happy?
What I liked the most about Anthem for Jackson Dawes and what I think the author portrays well is the different ways people--children in this case-- deal with having cancer. Megan is fueled with anger and bitterness. Jackson is jovial and mischievous, always trying to look at the bright side of cancer (in his opinion, not mine!), such as not having to really worry about school and driving the nurses crazy with his pranks and disappearing acts. Then there is Kipper, a little girl who refuses to use her real name while in for treatments. Her mother tells Megan that her daughter made her swear she would not reveal her real name. Could it be that in order for Kipper to cope during treatments and stays at the hospital, she chooses to go by a fake name and live in an imaginary world?
Celia Bryce also subtly weaves in a few philosophical questions that Megan and Jackson are left to ponder. Megan, coming face to face with the possibility that she could die, has a hard time coming to terms with why some people get to live long, healthy lives while others perish so young. Her grandfather is nearly 100 years old and while her family prepares to celebrate another birthday with him, Megan doesn't want to go to the party even though she loves him dearly. Although we mostly get to see Jackson's silly side, the one thing that seems to bother him is what kind of legacy would he leave behind if he should die. Will he be remembered? Maybe the reason he causes so much trouble is because it is his way of making sure he will never be forgotten...
There are quite a few reviewers that didn't care for Megan, some finding her annoying and immature. Maybe it's because I work with kids, but let us not forget that she is only 13 years old and many children around that age can try our patience. And while I have never had cancer, I do know what it is like having medical problems at a young age, so you try to find any way you can to cope. That being said, it was nice to see Megan start to warm up to not only Jackson, but to the little ones in the ward. Jackson teaches her how important their role is, that they must set an example to the younger patients. She learns this by watching Jackson somehow convince Kipper to take her medicine when no one, including her own mother, could do it.
But while I loved all of these things, the story lacked development. I know that may sound crazy since I just mentioned some of the themes running through the book, but that's all it is, just glimpses and impressions. None of these themes are fully explored. It is the same with the characters. Just when the layers of Jackson are starting to peal away to reveal the true young man under the goofy exterior, the story ends. It almost feels like we only get a small slice of the story.
Oh and while I am on the topic of lack of character development and feeling like things aren't fully explained, I noticed something quite interesting. Is Jackson Dawes black??? I absolutely don't have a problem with this (I am bi-racial) but the author sticks in this small detail that I picked up around page 180: "Megan stared down at the pure black fingers wrapped around hers. Her hand looked pale and tiny in his." When I read this and I started imagining Jackson Dawes as a young black kid, it made the story and this mysterious character that much more interesting. But Celia Bryce does not elaborate on this tidbit of information. Maybe she did that on purpose, after all, that's not the point of the story. But it does make me wonder....
Anthem for Jackson Dawes would be a great classroom read for middle schoolers and for those who want to ease into the topic of cancer and first love. While not as powerfully moving as other books/movies in the genre such as Jodi Picoult's My Sister's Keeper or the tear jerker Now Is Good, there is something beautifully haunting about the story that sticks with you for awhile. But there is no doubt that the novel could have easily benefited from an extra 50+ pages to fully flush out the main characters and story. Oh, and for those out there that didn't like the book because it was terribly depressing? It's a story about kids that have cancer for crying out loud!!! Why are people surprised???