Kathy Cunningham's Reviews > Canoedling in Cleveland

Canoedling in Cleveland by Richard       Morris
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it was amazing
bookshelves: self-published-best-bets

On one level, Richard Morris’s CANOEDLING IN CLEVELAND is a cute, nostalgic story about three teenagers spending the summer of 1960 taking canoe trips. Jeff Klossen bets his older brother $100 that he “will canoe every lake and stream around [Orchard Park] that’s canoeable” before Labor Day. And that’s exactly what he sets out to do, with friends Randy Clark and Lori Matthews along for the ride. But on another level, the novel is about the racial divide in the suburbs of Cleveland, and Jeff’s growing determination to change the world.

The novel is set in Orchard Park, Ohio, a white middle-class suburb about a half hour from Cleveland. This is 1960, which means it’s pre-Civil Rights Act – the March on Washington hasn’t happened yet, Martin Luther King hasn’t made his “I Have a Dream” speech, and high school kids in Ohio learn very little about African American contributions to American history. Jeff begins to wonder why there are no Negroes living in Orchard Park – yes, he calls them Negroes (and a lot of the others living in Orchard Park use a different “n word”). Jeff begins to ask questions around town, he and Lori start doing research at the public library and at the local Historical Society, and he begins to see that the racial divide is larger and more complex than he imagined.

The canoeing story, which forms the backdrop for Jeff’s social and political exploration, is beautifully told. His relationship with Randy, a boy he’s in constant competition with, is a believable mix of love and hate – they argue all the time, neither will give the other an inch of ground, but they also understand each other. It’s a real and identifiable relationship, even with over 50 years of distance from today’s teens. Lori, who is originally recruited so the boys will have someone to pick them up at the end of a run, proves to be a self-assured, smart, and courageous partner who longs for adventure as much as Jeff and Randy do. She starts off quiet and unassuming (with too-straight hair and braces), but it isn’t long before both Jeff and Randy are seeing her in a very different way – which, of course, gives them yet another thing to compete over. Their relationship is funny and sweet and totally believable, and I liked all three of them . . . well, until Randy’s true colors began to surface.

If the heart of this story is canoeing, its soul is more political. When Jeff, Randy, and Lori meet Walter Madison, a black teenager from the projects, the reality of their own perspective is irreparably challenged. Walter thinks all whites hate black people, and Jeff fears that the opposite may also be true. The relationship between Walter and Jeff represents one of the most honest and straightforward discussions of race relations I’ve ever come across. Neither pulls punches, and both are brutally direct about their fears and concerns. Walter is angry, and Jeff doesn’t at first understand why. And this isn’t a hearts-and-flowers sugar-coating of this very complex American problem. Jeff is determined to get to know Walter better, to visit him on his home turf, and to invite him into his own world in Orchard Park. But it’s not as easy as he imagines it will be. Walter shows Jeff and Lori how difficult a journey it will be from distrust and resentment to anything close to true friendship. What makes it most heartbreaking for both Jeff and Lori is Randy’s inability to see past the racial intolerance in which he has been raised. There’s a lot of that in Orchard Park, and it’s a hard lesson for Jeff to learn – even his own father has more than a little difficulty accepting Walter’s presence in his son’s life.

CANOEDLING IN CLEVELAND is being marketed as a Young Adult title, but as someone who grew up in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, I found it particularly charming and relatable. It’s been decades since I’ve come across anyone using the word “phooey!” (it was always my mom’s favorite expletive when I was growing up) – today, of course, it’s been replaced by a very different “f word.” Jeff and Lori are a cute couple, and while their romance is definitely more chaste than would be expected of teenagers today, Morris makes it very clear that Jeff has the same lustful feelings as his twenty-first century counterparts do. He’s a real kid, and the things he thinks about (sometimes in spite of himself!) are the same things kids everywhere think about. And his passion for social change is both admirable and inspiring. At one point, when things look particularly bleak in his efforts to bridge the gap between Walter’s world and his own, Jeff says to Lori, “It’s hard to change the world.” He’s right, of course. But the hardest part is taking those first steps, the steps Jeff and Lori have already taken in their effort to get to know Walter and his friends and family.

CANOEDLING IN CLEVELAND is a beautifully written story about canoeing, friendship, and changing the world. I recommend it to anyone interested in a journey back to a time before we all forgot what’s really possible. This is a great story.

[Please note: I was provided a copy of this book for review; the opinions expressed here are my own.]
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
July 15, 2014 – Finished Reading
July 18, 2014 – Shelved
July 18, 2014 – Shelved as: self-published-best-bets

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