Not just corn in the USA

21st March 1997 at 00:00
CHASING REDBIRD By Sharon Creech Macmillan Pounds 9.99

SQUASHED By Joan Bauer Orion Pounds 3.99

Geraldine Brennan chooses the pick of the crop among American imports

Huffing and puffing by critics about American influences in teenage fiction is usually rooted in irrational fear of invasion by grisly trick-or-treaters and sub-Baywatch-babe female leads in corny romances.

In these two novels, US writers have exported the sort of influences we should be begging for - genuinely stirring adventures in settings far removed from bland strip-mall suburbia, and a glimpse at refreshingly different and nurturing communities.

Also, those whose palates were tickled by Laura Ingalls Wilder (never mind the pioneer spirit - I was hooked on maple syrup straight from the tree) will relish the earthy symbolism and sense of roots which much North American fiction for children and adults manages to sustain without letting the drama slide into the kitchen sink. There are echoes in these two books of the Canadian writers Carol Shields and, more recently, Gail Anderson-Dargatz (The Cure for Death by Lightning) and Ann Marie Macdonald (Fall on Your Knees), whose details about homemaking and extended family life sit well alongside a sense of wider and less comforting possibilities.

Sharon Creech's novels, which overlap just enough to intrigue, embody these qualities. She now lives in England but is published in the US first.Her heroines take interesting journeys - Salamanca in Walk Two Moons pursues her mother, Mary Lou in Absolutely Normal Chaos falls hazardously in love. Zinny, in Creech's latest novel, is a little like Mary Lou - lost amid "a slew of brothers and sisters", constantly asked "Which one are you?" and suffering in glamour-puss May's shadow. But Zinny's path of self-discovery is more tortuous - she literally has to hack through an overgrown trail. Her solo trek into the Kentucky backwoods is satisfyingly daring but not implausible.

Chasing Redbird and Joan Bauer's Squashed both trace the cycle of bereavement, mourning and recovery. Zinny's aunt and uncle take comfort in her when they lose their daughter; when Aunt Jessie in turn dies, Zinny's trail project indirectly helps Uncle Nate to cope while explaining some family secrets. In Squashed, Ellie keeps her dead mother's memory alive by cooking for her father, the poignancy of treasured family recipes complicating her already fraught relationship with food (although this is no grim diary of an eating disorder).

Bauer has threaded a darkly comic seam through the scenes of life in Rock River, Iowa. This is particularly fruitful in her treatment of Ellie's father, who has broken the family farming tradition to make a New Age killing as a motivational consultant, despite his own severe depression.

Ellie, however, remains wedded to the land. The plot turns on her grand passion for Max, whom she nudges towards greatness with flattery and a rich diet. Wes, her secondary passion, has to fend for himself - but then he's a boy, not a pumpkin.

As sneaky rivals and weather reports conspire against Max's victory at show time, Bauer makes the most of Ellie's waspish humour. On a deeper level, the family's return to happiness is charted in a sustaining tale.

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