On a nothing special day fourteen-year-old ninth grader Peter Weir gets called to the principals office. Peter, the protagonist of Vancouver author John Burnss debut novel, has no way of knowing hes about to experience the worst day of his life; three days later his dad is buried. For Peter it was all too much. Nobody understood. Not his mom. Not his best friend, Nobody. And theres more adversity to come. It arrives on another nothing special day when Peter accidentally finds a legal document in his dads desk that brings his life crashing down and turns him into a runaway bus-riding clear across Canada to the west coast. With a farm-town granny beside him, a trio of bullies behind him, and a pocket full of bad luck, he manages to get mugged at a bus stop and to lose most of the one thousand dollars his dad had left for him, For nobody but Peter. For his own use.
Alone, almost penniless, smarting from his dads sudden death, and devastated by the news in the document he found at home, Peter sets out to keep body and soul together, the one by learning to panhandle, the other by learning to stay solitary, trusting only his intuition, and a secret white space to which he teaches himself to retreat. Peters schooling, also exposes the complex culture of homeless street kids, with their love of public spaces, tattoos, hacky sack, dogs, and the flags and badges on their jackets. There is the addiction to drugs and alcohol and their craving to be cared for, even if only by predators like the emotionally unstable Dekman, a modern-day Fagin who rules their local squat, assigns the best downtown begging sites, and doles out pittances as allowance for food and tokes and hits for mind-numbing escape.
Wrestling with his own coming-of-age demons, Peter cuts off his contacts with his mom and friends back home to take on a new identity with the Dekman-sanctioned street name Runner. He sleeps on the street, in a cave near the zoo, and on the beach before landing in the squat where he does murals and paintings on cardboard he has stolen. He consorts with the likes of Hamburger Face Spike, a whirling dervish of a girl named Cat, a kid named Thumper, and gang members in their street uniforms of jeans, hoodies, elaborate jackets, Doc Martens, all black, plus chains and spikes and piercings. On the street he befriends Preacher Sal, the disturbed itinerant who trundles about with a grocery cart full of belongings and his lungs full of doomsday warnings.
As Runner, Peter finds his own West Coast lotus land of whiteouts and dream visions, where he feels free, safe, and alone, and can call out to all the tinkling flowers, to the stream, to the ringing bluebells: I name this world . . . Runnerland! But its also a world that Dekman wants into, and one where Runner has a premonition of a real life fiery catastrophe that comes true. For Runner, the fire affords an escape from Dekman even as he realises that his time in Runnerland was over [and] now he had to get by without it. But he still has reconciliations to make at home and the fallout from a legal document to resolve. Perhaps in a sequel.
Told with insight, empathy, talent and skill, Runnerland is an intriguing story about kids, forced to take graduate courses from the school of hard knocks. Every word is worth reading.
M. Wayne Cunningham (Books in Canada)
-- Books in Canada
John Burns (Vancouver, British Columbia) is a well-known journalist and writer. He is the managing editor and the books columnist for Vancouver's Georgia Straight and was a finalist for the Western Magazine Awards (2002 and 2005) and National Magazine Awards (2004). Burns is also a regular contributor and event host for CBC radio and CBC-related events such as CBC Radio Studio One Book Club. He co-authored Urban Picnic, a book of recipes.