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Road trip romp an easy, predictable read
Author: Caroline Stellings
Published by Cape Breton University Press
Review by Shari Narine
The Manager by Caroline Stellings is a quick, easy, no-surprise read. Or, as the boxing world would say, an easily telegraphed shot from family conflict to family resolution with a bit of razzle-dazzle thrown in.
Classified as a fiction for young people, The Manager is set in 1979 and tells the story of the Mackenzies, a boxing family, which struggles to succeed both as a family and in the boxing world.
The story is told in first person by younger sister Ellie. Her mother is dead, her father is a boxing-obsessed man who runs a struggling gym, and her older sister Tina is a boxing-obsessed young woman who suffers from dwarfism.
When Tina hears about a medical procedure that could cure her dwarfism, she convinces Ellie to accompany her to Boston, where the operation will take place. So the pair leaves their home of Whitney Pier, a neighborhood in the industrial part of Sydney, with Bonita, the older daughter of a shop-owner friend who owns a car.
Along the way they meet a young Mi’kmaw boxer, Jesse Mankiller. As fate would have it – or perhaps a simple, straightforward plot – Jesse needs a manager and Tina takes the job. As they move through the boxing circuit, they meet a backwoods family in Maine, complete with lusty boy-crazy, breast-baring twins; fall into the good graces of a mobster; and have sufficient money to eat meals and get hotel rooms.
The characters are all too likeable and their flaws are all surface. Stellings misses the opportunity to dig deeply into what makes them who they are. Or as Tina would say, Stellings misses the combination. She’s “throwing one punch at a time. No good. Jab, jab, hook.”
Stellings has brought together a group of visibly different people but chooses to tell the story from the point of view of the only person who is “normal.” She has a wide array of characters –Bonita, who is black; Tina, the dwarf, and Jesse, the Indian – who could have offered a stronger, more poignant look at life on the road.
At one point, Bonita comments, “I know what it’s like to face discrimination on a daily basis, believe me.” But Stellings fails to deliver the hook on what could be a powerful theme; instead she jabs around it, pokes at a hint here and there, but never delivers the final knock-out blow.
She does the same thing with stereotypes.
There are the jabs. The first time the sisters meet Jesse it is on his mother’s Nova Scotia reserve. The family resides in a dilapidated trailer with a plywood door, Jesse’s mother is in a wheelchair, his sister is an alcoholic, and there are oodles of half-dressed little children running around. Another jab: Tina apologizes for assuming that Jesse’s father is in jail. Another jab: Tina assuming Jesse got stopped at the US-Canada border because he was driving a rich man’s car. But no hook: how does all of this come together to make Jesse the ultimate fighter?
Instead, the reader is introduced to the backwoods twins who want a piece of the boy-with-the-ponytail.
Instead, Stellings knocks it all down to a love story: in Ellie’s words (when she is not drooling all over Jesse or condemning Tina for not caring about their father), “Tina wanted to be loved.”
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