The Collected Works of Gretchen Oyster by Cary Fagan

Review by Shanleigh Klassen

Tundra Books, Penguin Random House Canada, 17 September 2019

188 pages, hardcover, $19.99 CAD, 978-0-73526-621-6

Ages 10-14, Grades 5-9

Middle Grade, Contemporary Realism

My teacher Ms. Gorham once said that a story should have an exciting opening. Like this—

We stood and watched as the entire laboratory went up in flames.

Or maybe,

If there was one thing I couldn’t do, it was sit idly by while a bunch of giant insects tried to eat their way across the planet.

Unfortunately, this is not that kind of opening.

I went to the library.

Life has not been easy for Hartley Staples as of late. It could be in part because his teacher has just assigned the last project of middle school and he has absolutely no clue what to present on. It could be because his best friend has suddenly stopped talking to him. It could also be the simple fact that Hartley is growing up in a small town with only a mobile home as a library. But the real reason is that his brother Jackson ran away nine months ago, and no one knows where he is.

When a mysteriously poetic card appears in Hartley’s life—bringing with it a colourful outlook on life and a much-needed distraction from his family, which is still reeling from Jackson’s disappearance—he finds himself thinking beyond his current circumstances for the first time in a long while. With each new card he finds, Hartley feels his small world grow a little bit bigger.  

Because I am more familiar with Fagan’s picture books (The Little Blue Chair; Mr Zinger’s Hat) than his middle grade novels, I had high expectations for The Collected Works. Fagan has a talent for underlying a soft, emotional resonance that builds to a satisfying resolution. Unfortunately, though Fagan brings a lot of emotional Middle Grade topics to the table—from bullying and growing up to parental abandonment and depression—there are too many issues packed into this slim 180-page book to gain a meaningful understanding of each. Perhaps if Fagan had stuck to one or two of these topics, The Collected Works would have been more like the works by Susin Nielsen (Dear George Clooney; No Fixed Address) or Rebecca Stead (When You Reach Me; Goodbye Stranger).

To Fagan’s credit, Hartley is a well-established and compelling protagonist, although perhaps not quite the “something” his teacher claims him to be (with tears in her eyes; page 74). In fact, Hartley is solidly average, but it’s in how this average boy from a small nowhere town deals with such heavy circumstances that makes him so compelling. He’s initially unsure why he’s drawn to the cards, but nevertheless finds value in them on their own. Though the ending makes me feel that the more interesting part of Hartley’s story—confronting the trauma and responsibilities forced on him from his brother’s abandonment—is just on the horizon, for the moment, he is just content to read Animal Farm in his room.

Although The Collected Works of Gretchen Oyster has all the necessary elements for a captivating contemporary novel, in the end, it just kept me waiting for something that never quite happened.

Shanleigh Klassen hails from the frozen metropolis of Winnipeg, MB, pursuing an M.A. in Children’s Literature at UBC. She is a bookseller at heart and a scholar in practice. Shanleigh loves anything with a fairy tale spin, some dark magic for flavour, and an anti-hero at the centre, but she’s not picky.

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