Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World – Janet E Cameron

(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)CTATEOTW

Set in a small-town Nova Scotia in the 80s, its hero is Stephen Shulevitz. It is far more complex than a simple coming of age novel and probably more true to real life because of it. (SPOILER ALERT: there is an open ending rather than a ‘happy ever after’ though you suspect he will be happy.) Literature and music are the constants that you can take with you when you leave or stay with you if you are stuck.

His straight best friend Mark grows up dyslexic and abused and learns quickly to be the toughest kid in the playground. Stephen also has to deal with his mother Maryna, who is dreamy, disorganised, and stuck in a dead end job in a small town – the one bright spot in her life seems to be her son. Stephen’s father Stanley is a self-absorbed academic who remains irritatingly calm in a crisis, especially if it’s one he’s created himself. Then there’s Stephen’s big-hearted, Goth-punk friend Lana, with an unfortunate crush of her own.

There is a string of absent fathers and inappropriate relationships. In a small town you don’t have much choice and there are always those who can’t wait to leave and those who are too scared to leave. His father is an ageing hippy and teacher: my father was home, in his corduroy jacket with the patches on the elbows, a sheaf of folders under his arm….. his beard was getting out of control again…..someone tall and twisty, long arms and legs and bright brown eyes, with wiry dark hair he’d gather in a ponytail or carry in a cloud around his head. His friends called him Spider. He insisted I call him Stanley or Stan. No father names. He wanted everybody to be on an equal footing in this family, he always told me. ‘Like friends.’

Some friend – he walked out on his family and phoned to speak to his son after many years and didn’t even recognise his voice because it had broken – duh – that is what happens to teenage boys but his dad had preserved him in aspic.

When he’d walked out he stupidly said: ‘Maybe it would be better for all of us if you let him forget me,’ he’d written. ‘Kids bounce back fairly easily, don’t they?’

His advice on bullying was more than crass. It was harmful: `Ignore them,’ he’d said. ‘Just ignore them.’

The rest of my parents’ advice was stupid. `Laugh it off,’ my mother told me. ‘They’ll respect you if you can laugh at yourself ‘ `Next time they insult you, agree with them,’ said Stan. `I read somewhere that when people call you names, they’re really talking about themselves. Maybe try telling these kids that.’

 The mother is nicer but still stupid: Mom, I smoked up. I smoked, you know, marijuana.’ She was staring at me again. I pretended she wasn’t. `Oh, Stephen. Already?’ My mother shook her head, like she was looking at a licence application that she couldn’t bring herself to rubber-stamp. ‘No, no. Fourteen’s way too young. Your brain’s still developing. And your body. You should really wait until you’re in college.’…. ‘I guess Stan wasn’t much of a role I model, huh? Always toking up in front of you. But at least it’s better than drinking. Or this.’ She held up her cigarette with its curl of smoke land glared at me. ‘I never want to see you with one of these, ever. Understood?’

The loss of a childhood friend is more poignant than adults realise: I’d known Dylan for as long as I’d been able to form memories. How could she be leaving, just because her mom and dad felt like living somewhere else?

The author understands the real function of school correctly: Most kids saw high school as a place for having fun and being with your friends, and the stuff you were asked to do in classes was like rent — you paid it so you’d be allowed to continue to stay there, and to keep the authorities off your back.

The teenager, after self-harming in attempt to cure his homosexuality and the lack of real concern from adults, describes ‘normal life’ thus: And so we got set back on our little clockwork paths and went ticking on with our day, my mother and me. Continued with everything, as if we were normal people. People who remembered nothing.

 He also has OCD: At the top of the basement steps, I had to sit for a minute and count backwards from a hundred in French.

Quotations

“ ‘It’s not the end of the world.’ That’s what people will tell you. That’s what people will tell you when they want to say, ‘Your problems are stupid, your reaction to them laughable, and I would like you to go away now.’

‘Oh, Stephen, for God’s sake, it’s not the end of the world,’ my mother will say, over and over, in tones of sympathy or distraction. Or sometimes plain impatience. 

So of course if she’s ever running around looking for her keys and cursing, I’ll always tell her, ‘It’s not the end of the world, Mom.’ And if she’s really been pissing me off, I’ll scoop the keys up from wherever she’s left them and stick them in my coat pocket. Then I’ll settle back to watch with a sympathetic expression while she tears the house apart looking. Lost keys? Not the end of the world.

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