Page 45 Review by Stephen
Do you want something to make your hearts soar and your souls sing?
Melanie Gillman presents you with two hundred and seventy pages of warm, rich, full-colour beauty successfully celebrating the awe-inspiring majesty of nature and the equally impressive ability of young individuals to reach out to one another while keeping you worried that they won't.
And they don't, some of them - not to begin with. No one is perfect: we can't ask for that. People are complex, behaviour can be mean and words very careless indeed.
History and religion are complicated too, and it behoves us all to dig a little deeper. But if you think I've already given too much away, oh no: there are many mysteries for you to discover for yourselves, some of which I won't even allude to here.
"I always thought that was cute - girls with boys' names."
Charlie Lamonte has only just arrived, and is already worried that this was all a massive mistake: electing to spend an entire week at a remote Christian youth backpacking camp where, it transpires, all the other twelve-to-fourteen-year-old girls are white.
Charlie, you see, is black. She's also self-aware, as painfully self-conscious as any teenager, queer and beginning to question her formerly firm belief in God.
Not only that, but the other girls have already arrived and seem far more confident than Charlie. A couple of them are quiet and dubious, but others have made friends and are playing cheerfully, energetically, even raucously. What greets Charlie is daunting, to say the least. She's hoping not to get noticed. She's hoping not to stand out. She's hoping to find the reason that she believes she was led here today.
"Please talk to me again.
"Don't go silent.
"Don't leave me here all alone."
There are admittedly worse things in life, but being alone in a crowd is excruciating, particularly when you are young.
The early signs are not good. Sydney, 13, is combative, swiftly attracting the contempt of the older, slightly sanctimonious Adelaide and Therese for her age, flat shoes and skirt.
"Who wears a skirt on a backpacking trip??"
Therese and Adelaide pair up fast over supper, establishing a pecking order and bonding over the romance of weddings - so that's another awkward subject for Charlie ("I've never really been the, uhh... marrying type) - and Adelaide even manages to drop in the word "gay" as a lazy, disdainful pejorative.
The good news is that this week-long camp is thoroughly feminist and so empowering in nature, which is a refreshing change for such a patriarchal organised religion. Counsellors of Charlie's six-strong Cherokee group - Bee and her 18-year-old daughter, Penny - are at pains to point out that the backpacking hike that they are all about to undertake together follows in the footsteps of the women of the former gold-mining colony who did all the farming on top of domestic duties and raising as many as seven kids, so found themselves with less time and fewer opportunities than the men to form bonding ties on hunting trips or down the local saloon. Led by a woman called Beatrice, they broke ranks with their husbands to proceed undaunted on an expedition of their own up, up and into the chartered wild, creating their own space right at the range's apex where they celebrated in a ceremony which the girls at Camp Three Peaks will be re-enacting when they too reach the summit. But both Bee and Penny are determined to keep the nature of that ceremony secret from their young charges, and that gives Charlie some concern, to say nothing of the loaded language used to describe it.
Here's another mystery: if the wives all defiantly struck out in secret and at night leaving their husbands back at base, who looked after their newly-born babies still needing to suckle?
The trek is arduous.
Over and again Gillman give us silent panels of huge endeavour emphasising both the scale of what these young women are undertaking, but also the difficulties that they casually encounter along the way. One panel gave me extreme vicarious vertigo.
But the views are epic, they are heavenly, and hues are sublime. Gillman's softly textured coloured pencils really come into their own as the white-hot disc of the sun sweeps across the sky, casting the farthest, hazy ranges into an otherworldly Martian red while the nearer verdant peaks, denser in rugged detail show off both coniferous green and purple concave shadow.
It's easier for some than for others, but Charlie is finding it particularly problematic: she's just come into her period a week earlier than expected so hasn't brought any sanity-towel protection. Already de-hydrating, this loss of blood is both embarrassing to Charlie but also dangerously debilitating, on top of which she's plagued by the most excruciating cramps. And she is trying to make friends! And not stand out! The last thing she needs is to feel a burden.
She discovers she's bleeding while assigned to collect and purify mountain water for the group with 13-year-old Sydney who provides her with tissue paper from her backpack as a stop-gap
"You okay in there?"
"Fine! Just met some too-friendly foliage."
"Tell it to keep its grubby tree-mitts to itself!"
"If I'da known, I could've gotten you the mace from my bag, too!"
They don't collect much water, but at least they're beginning to bond and Sydney is kind and inclusive.
"I think we're destined to be terrible water-bearers, you and I."
But Charlie's curiosity won't go away.
"Okay, I gotta ask - did you actually pack mace?"
"Would it weird you out if I did?"
"I guess I'd just want to know why."
"... Not everybody's equally safe in places like this."
Sydney looks away, cautiously.
Charlie starts to smart.
"What the hell does this girl know about feeling unsafe?" Charlie thinks.
And Sydney looks back.
Yay for Young Adult diversity and friendships! This will sit beautifully on our shelves next to Hope Larson's CHIGGERS, Maggie Thrash's HONOR GIRL and the recent, more urban BREAKS by Malin Ryden and Emma Vieceli, for example.
The art could not be more welcoming, the borderless panels radiating with natural beauty of green, gold and brown between clean white gutters. I make no pretence of knowing Gillman's visual inspiration, I only observe that some of Charlie's expressions while she and Sydney are (not!) collecting water put me surprisingly in mind of Richard Sala's.
What I loved above all about this on top of Sydney and Charlie's burgeoning trust and innocent collusion is the absence of unquestioned, theological perfection (why does organised religion insist that such an omnipotent being as God even has a limiting gender? - rhetorical) as well as the complete absence of two-dimensional stereotypes set up purely for the purposes of antagonism. People have the ability to disappoint (and I include myself there), but also to surprise and delight you.
Here's Adelaide, freely admitting that she really needs to work on being mean (which she can be, even to friends):
"Sometimes I think we're trained to do just that - make friends like we're jockeying for position.
"By the time you realize it, it's already become engrained.
"It doesn't feel very Christian."