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Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Hidden Agenda of Sigrid Sugden, written by Jill MacLean. Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2013. $ 11.95 ages 10 and up

"I come level with Abe Murphy's. His truck's not in the yard, nor is his dog. On impulse, I leave my bike leaning against his fence and walk up the path to the barn. The cow in the field eyes me, chewing thoughtful-like, flicking flies with her tail. Her coat is light brown, clean, and shiny. I better not get hooked on that word clean. The barn door creaks open. I catch a flash of white and see a cat..."

I knew nothing of the Newfoundland towns of Ratchet and Fiddlers Cove. I should have. The Nine Lives of Travis Keating (Fitzhenry &Whiteside, 2009) and The Present Tense of Prinny Murphy (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2010) have been patiently waiting on my TBR pile for far too long. I read Nix Minus One (Pajama Press, 2013) last year and was blown away by the beautiful verse story.  I cannot explain to you why I did not get right at the other books on my shelf written by this accomplished and articulate author. I know better now.

Jill MacLean has created a very realistic cast of intense and complex characters for this third novel about the young people who live in coastal Newfoundland. Each has a  fair share of pluck; yet, there is a vulnerability that made my heart ache for them. Nothing is as it seems for these complicated young people.

Sigrid is a Shrike, one third of a group of girls who make life miserable for so many other students at their school and on the school bus. She is only 12, and she is beginning to come to the realization that the other two, Tate Cody and Mel Corkum, are pushing her to do things that she does not want to do any longer. The final straw for Sigrid comes when their actions could have cost Prinny Murphy her life. Quick thinking on Sigrid's part prevents the tragedy; it also sets her up as a new pawn in the game for Tate and Mel. They know what she did...

What Sigrid discovers is heartbreaking for the reader who understands her motivations, and watches as she is thwarted in her attempts to make amends. Memories run deep, and perhaps Sigrid has been a Shrike for too long. At the same time, the bullying by her former 'friends' escalates. She is often terrified of what they might do to her, and to others.

Alone and lonely, she can't even turn to family for help. Her mother is busy with a new business that means much more to her than her children. Lorne, her brother, has a new girlfriend and likes to spend all his time with her when he is not working. Her stepfather is working long hours, and also spending more and more time away from home. Sigrid is on her own to deal with her insecurities, her determination to do better, and her vulnerability where Tate and Mel are concerned. It seems hopeless, doesn't it? It is only through honesty and the intervention of some very special individuals that things begin to change.

Sigrid's first person narrative is raw, and enlightening. She has treated so many of her fellow students badly, and she is having great difficulty finding a way to make to change her ways. I have admiration for her struggle and for the fact that, although she comes close to taking the easier way out, she perseveres through many misjudgements in her quest to be a better person. She does find support from Hud, an older, unrelenting bully whose reign of terror is legendary. (You will know this if you have read Travis Keating's story!)  The way back to acceptance is not easy in any sense of the word.
Bravo, Ms. MacLean! You have created another story told with reverence and understanding, giving us characters to love and admire despite the flaws that make them who they are. I am in awe of your storytelling. Travis Keating and Prinny Murphy have moved to the very top of my TBR pile. Thank you! 

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