Escaping into entertainment proves to be both life-sustaining and life-denying in Glen Huser's first young adult novel, Touch of the Clown.
The story turns on the hard social realities of child abuse, neglect, poverty, alcoholism, and AIDS. It could easily have become a treacly tearjerker or a sentimental comedy as nauseatingly manipulative and dishonest as the recent movie, Patch Adams. But Huser's assured, delicate blending of the buoyantly comic with the unflinchingly realistic makes it truthful without being bleak, positive without being cloyingly rosy.
The novel is narrated by Barbara Stanwyck Kobleimer, a thirteen-year-old who, like her movie star namesake, is smart and tougher than she realizes despite her vulnerabilities. Barbara and younger sister Olivia de Havilland have been raised in a poor Edmonton neighbourhood where a high premium is put on escapist entertainment. (Their mother had worked in a concession stand at the movie theatre where their father was an usher.) What little get-up-and-go their father once had has long gone since the death of his wife from cancer: he spends his days drinking sherry and watching old movies with his equally hard-drinking mother, evading parental responsibilities and living itself. So Barbara becomes the family caregiver and caretaker: she cooks and cleans for her father and sharp-tongued, selfish grandmother, and parents the willful, high-spirited Livvy. Most of the time, Barbara stoically soldiers along, but sometimes the weight of the responsibilities is too much to bear and she feels stuck in a perpetual present where the future seems to hold only more of the same... or worse. Small wonder she occasionally escapes into her books and happy memories of her mother.
Then a door is opened by Cosmo Farber. Cosmo is a clown whom the sisters meet when Livvy runs smack into the path of his bike. He befriends the girls, who are drawn to his warmth, gentleness, and understanding of loss, loneliness, and pain. That experience, which has made their father retreat from life, has intensified Cosmo's love of life-and of clowning and forms of entertainment that open us up to joy and wonder.
Cosmo urges Barbara to join his clown workshop. There, Barbara, so beaten down that she's been afraid to imagine a better life, begins to imagine. She is encouraged by the example of Cosmo, who has been fighting AIDS, and who teaches his students not just the rudiments of acting and clowning, but also how "to develop ways to keep this childlike sense of joy close by...as a kind of life-saver."
No matter how grim things get-and grim they do get after Cosmo dies and she and Livvy are placed in foster care-Barbara now has the tools of hope and imagination to help her improve her life. A moving, unforgettable novel!