Quill & Quire
contributing editor Shaun Smith’s first YA novel is very aptly titled, as it is a dark coming-of-age story that involves its fair share of both real and figurative snakes and ladders. It is 1971, and Paige, on the cusp of turning 13, is spending yet another summer at the cottage with her mother and seven-year-old brother Toby. Leisurely days of frolicking by the lake and reading Mark Twain novels are cut short when a series of unhappy events disrupts Paige’s life forever. It begins when Toby discovers a snake that he is convinced is bent on devouring the duck eggs the two children have been carefully observing since their arrival. Then there is the mysterious arborist, whom Paige learns has been hired to take down the tree that holds her beloved tree fort, built years ago by their late grandfather. Through all of this, Paige must struggle with the reality that her father has stopped visiting the family on the weekends in order to spend time with another woman in the city. As the summer unfolds, and Paige’s mother becomes more and more detached from the family, Paige gets acquainted with the arborist’s daughter, Janine, who harbours horrible secrets about her violent father. In spite of herself, Paige is drawn to Janine’s beer-drinking older boyfriend, Billy, whose mystique is heightened by the fact that he works alongside Janine’s father. The first few chapters of Snakes and Ladders
are hard to follow, as the shifts between past and present are frequent and unclear. Likewise, it isn’t until a third of the way through that a plot truly begins to develop and the story moves steadily toward a dramatic conclusion that incorporates the symbolic motifs the author employs throughout – snakes that destroy innocence, and ladders that carry us beyond our problems. There is a fair degree of implausibility in the final chapters of the story, as Smith attempts to cram every possible misfortune into one story. The young Paige must deal with a cheating father, a drinking mother, a crush who attempts rape, a murderous arborist, and a deadly rattlesnake. In spite of a convoluted plot, Smith’s debut provides an interesting perspective on the loss of innocence and the need for courage when one is forced to leave childhood behind forever.
For as long as 13-year-old Paige Morrow can remember, the tree fort in the giant oak near her cottage in Ontario’s Muskoka has been her sanctuary. Now everything is changing. It’s the summer of 1971, and she and her little brother, Toby, have been at their cottage with their mother since school let out. But this year, Paige feels more alone than ever. Her father has stopped coming up from the city on weekends, while her mother buries herself in whiskey and writing.
Paige retreats to her tree fort, but becomes concerned when the farmer who owns the property hires a creepy arborist -- a "tree doctor," Paige's mother calls him. Is something wrong with the farm’s apple orchard or with her tree? When Paige befriends the arborist's troubled teenage daughter, Janine, and her group of rowdy locals, she is pulled into a maze of dark secrets and shocking truths that leads to a life-and-death confrontation.
The idyllic sanctuary of Paige's Muskoka cottage is shattered when discord between her parents, a group of rowdy locals, trouble with her brother and a threat to her beloved grandfather's tree spiral into a life-and-death struggle.
(Stephanie Simpson McLellan Today's Parent
...Shaun Smith uses language beautifully, paints vivid scenes, and builds the tension wonderfully in this coming-of-age story.
A phenomenal read for young adults! Shaun Smith has written a novel rich in motifs and symbols that would appeal to both the male and female junior high aged reader. Rarely does an author or novel captivate the reader the way in which Shaun Smith has with Snakes and Ladders. A powerful summer read for any adolescent.
...this book is touching, intriguing and devasting ... Snakes and Ladders is a story you won't soon forget (FOUR STARS).
"In Snakes and Ladders Smith adroitly captures this dichotomy showing the outsiders summer Muskoka experience in a place that for them is just as much a home as the city but closer to nature and freedom."