March 01, 2011

BOOKS: Annabel, Kathleen Winter (2010)

Winter's novel opens as Jacinta Blake gives birth at home, surrounded by her friends and local midwives. Her friend Thomasina is the only one to see that this child is unusual, born with both a penis and a vagina. Her doctors determine that the baby should be raised as a boy, which pleases her husband, Treadway, but Jacinta senses that something is being lost in the decision.

There is no doubt that Jacinta and Treadway love their son Wayne very much, but rural Canada in the 1970s is not an easy place for a child who is different, especially when he's never been told the truth about himself. Treadway finds it particularly difficult to adapt to a son who's less interested in trapping and fishing than he is in watching synchronized swimming, and who makes friends with girls more easily than with boys.

It would be very easy for this story to give in to sensationalism, but Winter never allows it to. She simply tells Wayne's story, allowing us to live for a while in the mind of someone struggling to make sense of the most basic aspects of his identity. The writing is graceful and insightful, and Winter has a gift for finding the telling detail that makes a scene come to life. Her characters are vividly realized, and even the background characters feel completely real. Here's how Winter introduces us to one of Wayne's childhood classmates:
Donna Palliser came to the school in the middle of grade five. She took one look around her and decided who had to be taken out and who could stay. She had a slow way of turning her head and giving a poisonous look to anyone she was taking out. Sometimes the look alone took the person out and that person retreated to the background, and sometimes Donna Palliser had to take action, which she did in the playground when none of the teachers was looking. She did not have a strong body; she bullied mentally, not physically, and the first and most important person she wanted to take down was Wally Michelin, who had been queen before Donna got there, and whom Donna could see was the kind of queen who ruled by natural nobility and not by cunning or cruelty or clever resolve. Wally was easy to take down because she did not care if she was queen or not. Wally was not going to move. The other girls would move. The other girls would swear allegiance to the new queen, and there would be a ranking order, and no one would care about Wally's green dragon or orange flare, which they had genuinely admired. They would care about Hush Puppies crepe-soled Mary Jone shoes instead, and angora boleros, and having a ballpoint pen with pink ink, and Sweet Honesty perfume ordered from the Avon catalogue.
If there's a weakness here, it's that Winter draws the dividing lines between the sides of Wayne's nature in very traditional ways. The fact that Wayne isn't an outdoors-y kid is a sign that he's not a "real" boy, for instance; there's no room for the possibility that some boys prefer the arts to nature, or that some girls enjoy hunting and fishing.

But on the whole, this is a lovely and sensitive story about the need for acceptance, and the pain of those moments when it seems that we may never find it, least of all from ourselves.

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