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by Cathleen With
Arsenal Pulp Press
148 pages, $19.95

Reviewed by Joe Wiebe
posted January 7, 2007

Don’t be fooled into thinking this thin volume of twelve short stories will be a quick and easy read—this collection is much weightier than its small package implies. In Skids, UBC Creative Writing grad Cathleen With has crafted a strong set of intertwined tales connected by a desperate theme: teenagers living on the street, in detox clinics or psych wards, occasionally in foster homes, struggling in the thrall of their addictions.

With acknowledges she wrote these stories “for the kids who are still lost.” She herself spent time in a detox centre as a young adult. She has clearly put this first-hand knowledge into Skids; the book is steeped in the culture and vernacular of the street.

Sometimes harrowing, always desperate, these stories are not easy reads—not because they are poorly written, but because the author does not hold back or cover anything up. Her characters are addicted kids who “turn tricks” for cash to score their drug of choice (everything from crystal meth to heroin to cans of spray paint for “huffing”). But there is nothing euphemistic about the back alley blowjobs, pregnant twelve-year-old addicts, and victims of incest and rape found within these pages.
Readers should expect to be able to read only one or two stories in a sitting and then need to set the book aside for a few days. Although well written and engaging, this visceral collection is often disturbing. Moments of tenderness and optimism are rare, although when they do appear, they seem to glow in neon colours on the page.

A few stories stand out. “Drive Uncle Randy” is a daring take on incest in which the young victim believably feels love for her abuser. “Create a Real Available Beach” is a powerful rant by a 17-year-old recovering addict who is desperate to see her three-year daughter.

Although powerfully written this collection suffers from a repetitive quality. The stories are generally written from the first-person perspective in the protagonists’ own vernacular, and the voices of the different characters are not as distinct as they should be. One of the best stories, “Grangran Warmweather’s Sitting on a Hot Bingo,” shows that With can write in the third-person effectively, and as a result the story stands out from the rest.

Still, Skids is an impressive debut, showcasing a writer with promise. Part of the proceeds of the book’s sales will go to Covenant House Vancouver, a non-profit organization that helps street kids.

Joe Wiebe is a Vancouver writer who recently completed his first novel, a literary baseball story called Mudville.

Copyright Joe Wiebe. All rights reserved.

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