Jumping Off Swings (by Jo Knowles)

6 08 2012

On her website Jo Knowles writes about how she became a writer. She mentions that it was first and foremost Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War that turned her into “an avid reader, and eventually a writer. There is something about the raw truth of that book that showed [her] how powerful words can be. She then goes on to say how Robert Cormier was kind enough to send her a letter back after she sent him her manuscript telling her she was “a talented” writer. There’s more than a thing to say about the power of words, of course, and on this account the cat wholeheartedly agrees with Jo Knowles. However, I feel that her own novel Jumping Off Swings – not her debut, by the way – lacks in exactly that particular department: the words are really not that powerful when that’s exactly what you want from a book that deals with an issue as sensitive and troubling as teenage pregnancy.

Although all Ellie has ever wanted is to feel loved, at her high school she’s considered as ‘easy’, basically a slut. At the age of 16 she’s had many sexual partners, but they have always left her feeling empty afterwards. One night at a party (and that’s how the book opens) she hooks up with virgin Josh hoping this time the encounter will lead to something more. Josh, though, has been put up to doing it with Ellie by 2 of his ‘friends’. She’s an easy lay, so an ideal person to lose your virginity to. At the end of it all, Josh can’t get away from her fast enough, leaving Ellie feeling unwanted and empty all over again. Except, this time is different, and Ellie ends up pregnant.

The story of Jumping Off Swings is told by 4 alternating narrators, Ellie, Corinne (Ellie’s best friend who doesn’t understand why she gives herself so easily, yet stands by her time and again), Josh and Caleb (Josh’s friend, who’s had a crush on Ellie for a very long time). By using this particular narrative technique, Jo Knowles wants to show that an event like a teen pregnancy has an effect on so many different people. However, what she wants to achieve by widening the scope this much, she ends up losing in depth. Depth in the characterization and depth in the plot…

Ellie, the ‘real’ protagonist, is not drawn as strongly as she should have been. I don’t even mean strong as in “she’s a determined kind of person”, but strong as in: multi-dimensional. Like most of the characters here, Ellis is too one-dimensional.  She mistakes lust and sex for love, but once she gets pregnant, that whole plotline is just forgotten about, and we don’t get an insight in how her frame of mind has changed or is still the same, or what she will do in the future…  I mean is the pregnancy a punishment for having sex in the first place or what? That’s a fairly disturbing message… The inclusion of the point of view of Corinne, Ellie’s best friend, is also fairly moot . So she questions Ellie’s decision, and she has a crush on Caleb, but we don’t hear what makes her tick as her own person! Corinne is only there to serve as a loyal sidekick to Ellie, who already was a insufficiently drawn protagonist.  And then there are Josh and Caleb. Although Josh is the one who got Ellie pregnant, we don’t get much from his perspective, and he’s not exactly a very useful asset here in widening the scope or adding much depth to the plot (he feels sad, and that’s about it).  The only thing that Josh and Caleb (who seems to be super-boy) added to the whole story was showing how every other boy is basically just a stereotype (they aren’t of course, they can feel emotions like guilt and they can cry like a girl if they have to!): driven by hormones, thinking about parties, drinking beer and getting laid. I mean, of course every boy Ellie has ever been with has let her down.

Another drawback of having 4 alternating points of view is the almost endless repetition of how a particular character feels about the actions of the other characters, or his/her own actions. This is told over and over again, to the point of annoyance. With a quick read like this one,  you can’t actually connect with any of the four narrators, because before you’re well and truly in their head, the point of view changes again and you get yet another rehashing of what they feel about the whole pregnancy.  And it’s not as if each of the four narrators’ voice is much different from the other three, so having 4 POVs seems… unnecessary. If you want to prove how a pregnancy affects many different people, there are better ways to do this besides having 4 narrators (whose voices are almost interchangeable).
Then there are the inexplicable plot jumps…, so this is the story of a teenage pregnancy, right? And how all of these characters feel before, during and after they find out, and think about what exactly they should do next? But, why would you want to skip months in the story? Also and yes this is a minor thing about the plot… Ellie ends up having a C-section. She is then sent home 2 days after the operation??? WTF? In what sort of hospital/country was this? Speaking from experience, the cat can say you don’t get to leave the hospital after 2 days when you’ve basically had major surgery!

The topic of Jumping Off Swings has so much potential, but unfortunately Jo Knowles just doesn’t quite have the necessary skills to present it believably and powerfully to the reader .  If Robert Cormier is her big example, then she still has a long way to go.

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25 02 2014
Living with Jackie Chan (by Jo Knowles) | Ringo the Cat's Blog

[…] teen ‘issues’, and the language use is very accessible for my ESL-students. Of all her books, Jumping Off Swings is by far the book that is checked out the most (although See you at Harry’s usually gets the […]

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