The Marvels of Youth by Tim Bowling

In The Marvels of Youth, author Tim Bowling takes us deep into a special time in a child’s past – the year of transition in which his childhood is left behind. Set in the time frame between the release of the movie Jaws and the first Star Wars, grounded in the life of a small town west coast fishing community, the novel follows a year in the life of ten-year-old Sean, an avid comic book reader and collector.

Sean is a close observer of life, yet his perception sometimes moves into the realm of art, seeing for a moment the scene played out before him as a comic book scenario. He is a devoted follower of artist Jack Kirby, whose World War II experiences fueled his creative vision for epic experiences of superheroes in light and often in darkness. Sean’s mother, understanding only that her son likes comics, brings home gentler selections for him, Dell products like Archie. Sean and his friend Jay, however, are captivated by the Marvel world of heroes and superheroes, villains and supervillains. This perhaps more accurately reflects the life Sean lives and observes in his hometown.

The story is initiated by the death of Lari Edison, owner of the comic book store The Haunted Bookshop, Sean’s special escape in 1975. It is augmented by Sean’s exploration of boxes of his old comic book collection, which his mother has sent to him in Edmonton, where he now resides.

After leading us deep into the world and personalities that inhabit Sean’s world, Bowling takes us to the event that sets the course of the events of that year. Sean, who already works on his father’s fishing boat, is sent to pump the boat as usual one stormy night. When he hears mysterious sounds coming from a nearby boat, he sets out to investigate. His findings that night set the stage for a year of discoveries and changes for him and for others. He witnesses the anger and vengeance of a betrayed husband, the clashes of strikers and scabs during the fisheries strike, the growing distance between his older brother and their family, the increasing rage and unpredictability of a young man neglected and abused as a child, his father’s efforts to guide this person and somehow bring his first son into line, the evolution and passing of friendships. It is a neighbourhood of abandoned buildings, a world in transition, and Sean has to recognize what he will hold onto from his childhood.

Stylistically, the detailed characterizations and events make us eyewitnesses to the story. Lari Edison lives and breathes on the pages, right down to the mustard dripping onto his t-shirt from the thick sandwich he holds. Descriptions are vivid and intense; each action, word, sound, and smell builds the scene; as the boats gather to hand in their catch, for example, we feel the raw cold and the tension. Unusual images, like rain “bleeding from a sunless sky” are effective and captivating. The scene in which the boys travel along the river, spellbound by the hundreds of carved and lit jack-o-lanterns crammed in every nook is one that remains fresh for me, long after the reading.

Foreshadowing with reference to this Hallowe’en prank is balanced, hinting that something could arise from this moment, while drawing us onward, eager to learn what this could be. There is a fine balance in general, as moments in the present and in the past interweave with clarity and descriptive power. This is not easily attained.

I admit the length of an early sentence was at first alarming, but as I read it aloud, I realized that, although complex and covering much information, it was effective. Framed in the simple fact of Lari’s death, it managed to convey the full feeling of his life and time.

The novel gives a strong sense that the past shapes the present, and is in a sense active in the present. Sean, narrating the story as an aging adult, reveals a 1975 steeped in a sense of past – his older family,  his elderly newspaper subscribers, a sense of war and history. When Edgar takes a theatre seat during the demolition of the old theatre, a place where he found happiness in a miserable childhood, Sean feels Edgar is taking something from his personal past to use in the present, to cope with his future. Life is grounded in the past, but not absorbed by it; like the comic book world, it is always changing.

This is not a nostalgic view of the past, but a view of the good and the bad from the perspective of a child, tempered by the reflections of a man. Bowling brings an era to life, not with sentimentality, but with recognition of all that is vital – the moments, the people, and the present that is shaped and sustained by that time.

Tim Bowling is the author of twenty-two works of fiction, nonfiction and poetry. He is the recipient of numerous honours, including two Edmonton Artists’ Trust Fund Awards, five Alberta Literary Awards, a Queen Elizabeth II Platinum Jubilee Medal, two Writers’ Trust of Canada nominations, two Governor General’s Literary Award nominations and a Guggenheim Fellowship in recognition of his entire body of work.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Buckrider Books (Oct. 3 2023)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 320 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1989496741
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1989496749