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Coming-of-age novel set in northern Manitoba

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Physical abuse, death, rape, alcohol and drug addiction abound in this gritty and dark coming-of-age novel set against the barren beauty of northern Manitoba.

Clearwater is a debut by Kim McCullough, who teaches middle-school language arts in Calgary.

Though she was born in and mostly raised in Regina, McCullough also lived briefly in northern Manitoba.

The murder of Helen Betty Osborne took place there in 1971, and it is this undercurrent of darkness combined with the sheer beauty of the natural wilderness that informs McCullough's tale -- that and novels such as Mary Lawson's Crow Lake set in northern Ontario.

The two main protagonists are Claire and Jeff, two young people who meet and forge a friendship that shelters them, for a time, from the chaos that unfolds around them.

The story begins in 1983 as 15-year-old Claire and her 17-year-old twin brother and sister drive up north from Regina. They are heading to their new home at an airport community on the shores of Clearwater Lake, not far from The Pas.

Claire moves with her siblings and her mother into an aging duplex where Jeff, who is a year older, lives with his parents. Jeff describes himself as one of the "half-white kids" who look "enough like Indians not to warrant a second glance."

The tale is told from both characters' perspectives. Each chapter alternates smoothly and effectively between the first-person narrative of Claire and Jeff's third-person point of view.

We soon learn that Jeff is dealing with an alcoholic father who is abusive to his aboriginal wife and to his son. Claire's sister, Leah, becomes depressed and descends into alcohol and drugs. Their mother is largely absent and often neglectful.

Two disturbing acts of violence follow, sending Leah plummeting down an even darker path.

Manitoban readers may be reminded of Beatrice Mosionier's In Search of April Raintree because of the some of the shared themes. But Clearwater has a much larger cast of characters and complications and just does not have the same simple yet powerful intensity of Mosionier's work.

It is the complicated relationship between Claire and Jeff, which extends into their young adulthood, that holds the reader's interest.

Oddly, while the actions and behaviours of the parents play a huge role in the chaos that surrounds the teens, they actually have very little voice in the story itself.

McCullough leans toward too much explaining at times. For example, the obvious is overstated when we are told that Claire's mother is neglectful and Jeff's father is abusive. The reader already knows this.

Technical details describing the physical movement of the characters, where they sit, stand, etc., also seem excessive and slow the pace of the story.

Mostly, however, McCullough's prose is fairly crisp, clean and simple. There is some imagery worth savouring, especially when she describes the beauty of the lake and the North.

Clearwater would most likely appeal to young adults and seems particularly geared to that audience, as its focus is on the two young people who work through their problems.

Cheryl Girard is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 28, 2013 A1

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