Review by Peter Takach
Tundra Books, Penguin Random House, 2018
271 pages, hardcover, $21.00 CAD, 978-0-73526-275-1
Ages 9-12, Grades 4-7
Middle-Grade, Contemporary Realism
As September drew to a close it got colder, especially at night. This was something you become acutely aware of when you live in a van.
But we adapted. As Astrid likes to say, living in a Westfalia definitely makes a person more resource. “Resourceful, Felix, is a good life skill to have.”
And we are nothing if not resourceful. Take Wi-Fi, for example. When we need it, we go to a coffee shop, or find an unsecured network. When something needs recharging, like a phone or batteries for our headlamps, we plug in somewhere like the Laundromat. Sometimes we plug in at the power source outside an empty house. On the west side of Vancouver, there are a lot of big, brand-new houses with no one living in them.
Imagine if you were twelve years old and had to live in a van on the streets of Vancouver with your mother and your pet gerbil. Starting seventh grade at a new school would be hard enough without having to constantly lie to teachers, police, and your new best friends about your living situation. In No Fixed Address, Vancouver author Susan Nielsen puts a fresh and compelling face on the causes and consequences of “hidden homelessness” as we follow blond-haired trivia whiz Felix Knuttsen through the stress of his daily tribulation as he tries to complete his homework in a constantly moving home, care for his flighty mother, Astrid, and find a way out of their plight. When the Jeopardy-esque game show Who, What, Where, When comes to town, Felix bets everything in the hopes that the knowledge he has accumulated can score them enough cash for a permanent place to live.
From the opening scene, where the reader finds Felix in a police station, Nielsen crafts a sharp and observant protagonist whose diary-like reminisces quickly fill us in on how Astrid’s mental health challenges have driven them to the van. Frequent returns to the past reveal both past parental traumas that affect Astrid’s present and the maturity and insight that has come to Felix far too early. And yet his perspective remains optimistic and convincingly kid-like: amidst the adult pressures of food, shelter, and money. In crafting Felix’s voice, Nielsen skilfully balances Felix’s snappy dialogue, humorous asides on the idiosyncrasies of van life, and typical preteen struggles of bullying, friendship, and first love, while simultaneously exposing preteen readers to the real and spiralling consequences of poverty and hopelessness on society’s most vulnerable.
The tension builds in the story as the weather gets colder and the adults in Felix’s life get increasingly suspicious. What begins as every kid’s dream (Astrid says: “I have a fun idea…We’ll live in a van…It’ll be the ultimate summer vacation”) turns into a claustrophobic nightmare. The changes in season and Felix’s view on the van are reflected in Nielsen’s vivid descriptions of the day-to-day mechanics of living in and driving the Westfalia through the streets of Vancouver. Setting and contrast are also established through Felix’s careful attention to other people’s homes, such as his best friend Dylan’s perpetually cluttered living room or cheerfully overachiever Winnie’s tiny but spotless apartment.
Young readers will appreciate Felix’s resiliency and creative problem-solving in the face of adversity and world-weary adults will be reminded of the magical effect that even little acts of generosity can have on those who are struggling. Ultimately, No Fixed Address reminds us about the transformative power of community and that we never have to face the world alone.
Peter Takach is a writer and teacher whose works have surfaced in some of the nation’s finest magazines, literary festivals, and recycling bins. Banished from his hometown for crimes against humanities, he can be found at the University of British Columbia toiling away at his MFA in Creative Writing or perched on driftwood staring out at great Neptune’s ocean.