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Book Review: Baygirl by Heather Smith

Kit Ryan is growing up in a fishing village in Newfoundland in 1992, when the government announces a moratorium on cod fishing, leaving her father suddenly without work.  Already a terrible alcoholic, Kit’s father moves her family from their rural community to live with Uncle Iggy in a much larger city.  Uncle Iggy is battling his own ghosts, though, and Kit struggles to fit into this new world, where the other kids taunt her with the nickname “Baygirl.”

Heather Smith’s smart, authentic historical novel is a standout debut of a book.  The novel manages to gently illustrate change without offering its readers any simple answers, and the likable Kit makes for an entertaining and sympathetic narrator.  Strong secondary characters and a near-seamless blending of social and personal issues make this a novel not to be missed.

As far as protagonists go, Kit is a knockout.  Intensely likable but also flawed, she’s smart, strong-willed, and has a sense of humor.  Her anger at the beginning of the story is palpable, but throughout the course of the novel, this gives way to understanding as she grows and matures.  This evolution feels natural and is believable.

Secondary characters round out the story.  Particular care is given to Kit’s father and the exploration of their rocky relationship.  A terrible alcoholic, Smith never allows him to fall into the stereotypes of a terrible, abusive drunk.  Instead, she allows readers to see how multifaceted and difficult the disease is, confronting many of the misconceptions head-on.  As Kit discovers why her father is unable to face the world sober, so do readers, making this journey all the more moving.

The insider view of Newfoundland during the cod moratorium gives this novel a strong sense of place.  At times gritty and at times very funny, Smith has created a memorable historical fiction that many readers will find completely compelling.  This one is worth your time.

Baygirl by Heather Smith. Orca Books: 2013. Electronic galley accepted from publisher for the 2013 Cybils.

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