Leslie Anne Cowan is another new fresh face on the Canadian fiction scene. Cowan has a BA in English Literature and a Diploma in Education from McGill University. She has also graduated from the Humber School for Writers. Although As She Grows is her debut novel, she is not a stranger to publishing as her works, such as her short fiction was published in The Antigonish Review as well as in the anthologies Ten Short Stories and She’s Gonna Be. In January 2002 she published a striking short story, “Immaculate Conception,” which I found on the website of Niagara’s Lifestyle Magazine (www.downtownermag.com). She currently resides in Toronto where she is working with at-risk youths as a teacher.
When I read the novel’s inside cover, I have to admit my first impression was, here is another one of these “tales of woe,” dealing with disenfranchised and disillusioned teenagers, with an urban backdrop, or worst still, glamorizing drug abuse and teenage pregnancies. However, to my pleasant surprise, Leslie Anne Cowan set herself apart with her first novel in several ways which I will outline. On a cautionary note, this is not a light summer, beach-reading type of novel. If one has not experienced this “side of humanity,” it may be an eye-opening opportunity to see another aspect of society as there are rather shocking moments and events. Yet this novel has the potential to expand one's horizons and develop an understanding of the cycles of abuse and poverty found in many North American neglected and crumbling communities. At the end of the novel, one begins to appreciate all the advantages and goodness in one’s life, often taken for granted until one reads such a novel.
The story begins with the introduction of fifteen-year old Snow, a tough teenager growing up in an even tougher urban setting. She lives with her alcoholic, pill-popping, half-crazed grandmother Elsie, steeped in poverty, violence and overall dysfunction. However, one becomes quite enamoured with teenage Snow throughout the novel’s progression as she has a quick wit and a cynicism which both reflects her intelligence and the harsh realities of her daily life. Snow’s thoughts about her dead mother (she died when Snow was very young) is a constant presence throughout the novel and she almost becomes a real, living character herself. However, the myth and reality of her mother’s life keep transforming as Snow endures and reacts to the events of her life. The mystery of Snow’s mother’s death and her life prior to having Snow is intriguing as Snow searches for clues from Elsie and more “stable” Aunt Sharon. It creates enough tension to keep the reader sufficiently curious. Snow’s life rarely stands still as she is forced to enter group homes, which opens up the entire world of group homes workers, those in their care and the general sense of working with disturbed kids. Snow continuously tries to rail against the rip tide threatening to pull her out to sea by using fantasy and imagination to color her bleak world a little brighter and avoid truths, which is a facet of her personality which makes her so endearing. However, her awareness of the secrets that lie deep below the surface of her family, which threaten her future, and this back and forth mental exercise of going from fantasy to truth seeking is a fascinating portrayal of an “at-risk” youth.
Leslie Anne Cowan uses language which is beautifully lyrical at times (for example, at the beginning of each chapter), and gritty, harsh and crude at other times, to reflect Snow’s both inner and outer life. Cowan frequently resorts to powerful imagery, metaphors and similes, as she observes the world through the eyes of Snow the teenager. When describing the changing suburb where she lives, she makes these observations:
In another example, Snow describes her best friend Carla:
Cowan resides in Toronto, Canada. She did not choose to create an “Any Town, North America” as the novel’s setting and often offers a uniquely Canadian context, unlike some of her colleagues. Snow lives in Don Mills, Ontario, and there are many specifically Canadian references such as Club Monaco, Globe and Mail, Home Hardware, Dominion, Muchmusic, and a twelve pack of Blue, all of which the majority of Canadians would easily identify as Canadian brand names or companies.
As She Grows is divided into twenty-eight chapters, which are divided into three main parts. Although the novel begins with a fairly depressing picture of neglect, abuse and the usual teenage antics, Cowan manages to develop the characters early on and create enough tension and intrigue to last throughout the novel. One of the most eye-opening aspects of the novel is a closer examination of those who work with at-risk teenagers such as Snow. Cowan doesn’t try to glamorize street life or the people who work with at-risk youth on a daily basis. What makes this novel feel even more “authentic” and credible, obviously, is the fact that Cowan herself works with similar cases as Snow and those at the group homes who often have been abused by their former care-givers when they were children. At some point in the novel, one wonders if any of these interventions can truly assist these troubled individuals. Cowan also shares valuable insights into the work and lives of the myriad of human service workers Snow encounters each day in the group homes or with her counsellor. This novel should be read by any youth service worker or anyone thinking of entering such a field to get an accurate glimpse of the real lives of teenagers like Snow and her friends and acquaintances, and the vicious cycles of poverty and abuse. Yet Cowan does leave room for unanswered questions and loose threads; her ending is hauntingly vague, leaving the reader in suspense.
As She Grows is a compelling, complex and sensitive first novel. Leslie Anne Cowan has presented what appears to be a shockingly realistic portrayal of not only the youths themselves but those who assist them in group homes and counsellors’ offices. Although depressing at times, Snow’s character reaches out to the reader and pulls us in to explore this world. It all comes down to one of Snow’s insights: