At first blush, there is an awkward balance between a mother suffering from agoraphobia and her eleven-year-old son, his world made of fantasy and exaggeration rather than reality. Diane Cardiel and her son, Will, inhabit a cluttered house in Thunder Bay, Ontario, the same one purchased by Diane and her twin brother, Charlie, years ago. The Cardiel family has a long history of tragedy in Thunder Bay, where once men earned a living from dangerous work on grain elevators, that industry now a thing of the past. Their mother dead, then their father, the twins become accustomed to a world defined by loss, but with Charlieís death in the elevator, Diane is cast adrift. Once known for her iconic, artsy films, Diane has lately sequestered herself in the home purchased with Charlie, with only her young son for company.
Descriptions of Dianeís tortured existence are difficult to navigate, though Will has yet to question the small world created by his mother.
Various rooms are named for cities--New York, Cairo, Venice--the Inside safe, the Outside fraught with danger. In spite of his motherís warnings, when Will steps Outside to speak to an Indian boy stealing their garden hose, not only is his fear lessened, but the contact with the boy, Marcus, provokes a desire to meet the young man again. Bit by bit, wearing his Helmet for protection, Will ventures into the Outside, his first few interactions with others confusing as he realizes he hasnít the skills to talk to others without making a fool of himself. But part of Willís changing perspective entails that which he has never done before, a willingness to test the unknown that leads to the awakening of a formerly stilted perception.
This is Willís coming-of-age journey, all the new things he experiences along the way, good and bad. What doesnít change is the truth: much of the Outside is dangerous. Though Dianeís agoraphobia may be an extreme reaction to fear, she is not ignorant of some of the pitfalls her son may encounter as he breaks the rules they have so carefully constructed in their closeted existence. Torn between the need to protect his mother and his need to explore the Outside, Willís first tentative steps away from his childhood become more sure-footed, more compelling, as he attends school for the first time and forges a friendship with the skateboarding Jonah Turtle, expanding a horizon he is determined to conquer.
Together the two boys search for Marcus, who has disappeared.
Despite his motherís cautions, Will discovers that, indeed, Thunder Bay is a dangerous place, jobs whittled away by a failing economy and replaced by drugs and crime. As Dianeís past history merges with the present, her retreat no guarantee of safety, Will and Jonah roam the streets of the harbor, tempting fate while searching for their friend. Threats converge, the boys now in the sights of a dangerous man, Diane frightened that the walls of her house cannot protect her or her increasingly stubborn son. In a tale that evokes Torontoís past, its racial animus, dying industry and the interior life of a terrified woman and her curious boy, the novel evolves like a dark fairy tale complete with ogres, sea voyages and wanderers, two courageous boys leading the way.
Is this plot far-fetched? Maybe. But the author so beautifully describes Dianeís battle with mental illness and Willís fascination with the Outside, skateboarding, and his friendship with Jonah, that the eccentricities of both characters fill any empty spaces. Willís almost reckless pursuit of the missing Marcus is the result of a life too long confined, his naivetť inspiring not only partnership with Jonah
but the courage to face frightening situations bravely. The bond between mother
and son proves more elastic than either realize, Will meant to go Outside, Diane
forced to allow his experiment with freedom, a boy who understands the
parameters of fear and rejects them.