Reading the Right and the Real, I am already a fan of Joelle Anthony. When her first young adult novel, Restoring Harmony, came out two years ago, I read it with great relish. Not only was it a story rooted in a place I know well (the main character starts out on a Gulf Island much like Gabriola, where Anthony lives, and travels down to Portland) – it was an all-too-real version of the future, circa 2041. With convincing detail, Anthony turned our familiar West Coast into a bleak and chaotic landscape, populated by believable characters struggling to make their way.
With The Right & the Real Anthony has once again proven her ability to make a big issue immediate. Here her focal point is religious cuts, as represented by “the Right & the Real Church,” headed by the loathsome “Teacher.” The novel begins at Jamie’s father’s wedding, where she is unexpectedly asked by the Teacher to sign the Pledge committing herself to the organisation. Though her father has been taken in by the Church’s dogma, Jamie has remained aloof. Yet it is only when she refuses to sign the pledge that the true nature of this organisation becomes apparent. She is summarily cast out of the church, her house, and her father’s life. Anthony creates a keen sense of frustrated helplessness, as Jamie’s old life is inexorably stripped away from her. I find myself fuming at the unfairness of it all.
Unable to access her father, and refusing to be sent to live with her estranged mother, seventeen-year-old Jamie ends up on the street with few options. Outside of fantasy or thriller fiction, teen authors rarely force their characters into such desperate straights, though many teens are one argument away from leaving or being kicked out of home. Jamie’s story illuminates everything these teens face: the petty day-to-day struggles to feed oneself, the looming threats of danger and violence on the streets, and the desperation of watching potential futures slip away. Thankfully, Jamie is a tough and resilient heroine, and she is helped by a guardian neighbour, LaVon. Though LaVon is almost too perfect as a character, it is impossible not to love this gigantic black ex-con trying to kick addiction and live straight, who also knows his way around a hot plate and has an unshakable environmentalist ethic.
As with LaVon, the novel’s main weakness is when it tips towards what we would like to happen in this situation, rather than portraying what is real, particularly in the final act, where a fun but over-the-top caper dominates the action. Nevertheless, with Anthony’s tight command over detail, character and suspense, The Right and the Real remains a compellingly right portrait of the anguish of losing a loved one and finding oneself without options in a hostile world.