Kevin Major 1949–
Canadian novelist and editor.
With his first two novels, Hold Fast and Far from Shore, Major emerged as a highly regarded novelist for young adults. His use of local color, the dialect and way of life in Newfoundland, and his depiction of the often confusing state of life between childhood and adulthood are considered particularly noteworthy.
Hold Fast describes the struggles of an unsure young man who faces changes in his life and must make some important decisions. This allows Major to explore the conflict between "big city" values and those of the isolated "outport" culture of Newfoundland. The novel won immediate acclaim, including the Canadian Library Association Book of the Year for Children award and the Canada Council Award for Children's Literature, both in 1979.
Although Major's second novel, Far from Shore, met with less enthusiastic response, it was generally well regarded, winning the Canadian Young Adult Book Award in 1980. More experimental than his first book, Far from Shore depicts a family disrupted by unemployment and rivalry and explores the role of economic determinism versus personal reponsibility in shaping one's life. In both works, Major displays keen awareness of the concerns of young adults and the ability to communicate the struggles of adolescence.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 97-100 and Something about the Author, Vol. 32.)
It is, I suppose, decidedly unfair to compare the first novel of a young new writer with the acclaimed classic of a master storyteller, but Kevin Major's Hold Fast brought me so often into remembered contact with Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn that a comparison (or at least a referential glossing) became unavoidable. Such a comparison, in fact, tells us much about Major's technique and purpose and, lest the reader be apprehensive on this point, does nothing to devalue this young Newfoundland author's achievement.
Anyone who has read Huckleberry Finn cannot, for example, fail to see just how much alike Huck Finn and Michael (Major's protagonist) are. Both are physical and spiritual orphans treading the hard road to self-awareness; Michael, like Huck, is unsure of himself, stubborn ("pig-headed" Michael calls it), given to lying and to fits of self-pity and remorse; and even when a degree of self-awareness is attained there is always that shadow of doubt. How similar they are, and how close Major comes to achieving Twain's poignancy through his first-person naive narrator can be seen in a juxtaposition of the key (climactic) passages in the novels. Huck Finn, in that famous bout with his conscience [when he debates whether or not to do the "right thing" and alert the owner of Jim as to where the runaway slave can be found], comes to grips with his lying…. Michael, after having hitched a ride with an old man (in a chapter which is both...
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There aren't many novels that connect a commercial American style and the special qualities of a Canadian region, but Kevin Major's first book, Hold Fast …, does just that. It brings together the current mode of "young adult" novel as developed in the United States and the longings of Newfoundlanders for their past. In this sense it's a unique product of recent Canadian literature….
Newfoundlanders realize that, spiritually, all that they possess is the tradition their ancestors left them: the tradition of the intimate and isolated fishing villages, the seal hunt, the special language that is so different from the English most of us speak. At the same time, they know that forces they can't control (including forces within themselves) are drawing them away from that tradition, into urbanization and a closer contact with mainland Canada.
This is an odd subject for a juvenile novel, but it is one of the subjects of Hold Fast. Major's hero and narrator, Michael, is a fourteen-year-old outport boy whose parents die in an automobile accident. As a result he must leave his outport and move to a "big" (in Newfoundland terms) city, which is almost as drastic a step for an outport boy as moving to Toronto. There he finds himself repressed by both a tyrannical uncle and a school system that has no real place for him. Major stresses the contrasts between the authenticity of outport life—its close relation to...
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Hold Fast is a novel surrounded by death. It begins with the burial of Michael's parents, who have been killed in a car crash involving a drunken driver, and ends with his grandfather's death in sickness and old age. In between, we have the struggle of a fourteen-year-old boy to maintain his identity in a world of harshness, ignorance, and insensitivity. (p. 81)
Hold Fast is divided into three sections, each of which contains the motif of escape and return to reality by the hero. The first escape is simply a brief but meaningful run to the seashore during the burial of his parents; the second, also brief, is a running away from the circumstances concerning Michael's fight with a classmate. The third escape, more elaborate and adventurous, is a kind of initiation rite into young manhood and an assertion of pride in his heritage when he "borrows" a car and survives by his wits for two wintry days in the washroom of a deserted campsite. These three escapes have considerable character-building power and when Michael is faced with his grandfather's death, there is no running away: "In the cemetery I watched the casket go into the ground, and never once did I move from the spot where I stood."
Probably what one notices most readily about this novel is the style of the hero-narrator. His colourful, earthy, rhythmic idiom may jar at first, but then it settles into warm, colloquial undulation…. The diction is salted with four-letter words too well known to fourteen-year-olds but there is an occasional...
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[In Hold Fast, fourteen-year-old] Michael, orphaned along with his seven-year-old brother Brent when his parents are killed by a drunken driver, tries to grapple with the changes in his life. The Newfoundland idiom [in which he speaks] soon becomes as natural as Michael himself as he recounts his move from Marten, his fishing village, to live with relatives in distant St. Albert. While Michael's relationship with straight-arrow cousin Curtis slowly solidifies, he is hard put to accept his uncle's dictatorial, arbitrary rules; and despite new friends and a girl at school, there are teasings and fights, which eventually lead to his expulsion. Overwhelmed, Michael runs away, with Curtis joining him in the latter's first defiant act ever; after a "borrowed" car caper and a few days spent in a national park closed for the winter, they arrive at Marten to find Michael's beloved grandfather dying…. A classic innocent who sometimes sounds like a sort of Newfoundland Holden Caulfield, Michael is more than redeemed as a character by the directness and strength of his emotions. And first novelist Major projects all the action as Michael experiences it, with the same directness and vigor.
A review of "Hold Fast," in Kirkus Reviews (copyright © 1980 The Kirkus Service, Inc.), Vol. XLVIII, No. 10, May 15, 1980, p. 651.
At 14 kids need to look outside the small world of home and family to fix their bearings on their own independence and individuality. Literature can provide such a reading. Adolescents recognize in their fictional counterparts the same irretrievable loss of childhood, the inevitability of adulthood, and the paradox of being in both places at one time. Sometimes it is enough to "hold fast," a discovery made by Michael, a young Canadian from the fishing village of Marten, Newfoundland, in [Hold Fast]….
Pushed by family and social pressures to the point of losing his grip, Michael takes his young life into his own hands…. Michael's courage inspires his intimidated cousin, Curtis, to join him in his adventure. After a few days of "running away from home" the two boys are bored enough to face the job of growing up on their own terms. Curtis returns to St. Albert and his troubled family; Michael makes his claim to his parental home just as a second loss is demanded of him, the death of his best friend, Grandfather. Now no stranger to sorrow and rage, Michael accepts the tragedy as part of an imperfect world in which he now directs his own course. It is a long way to have come in one year.
Very few young people will find themselves in Michael's unhappy situation; yet they will recognize his struggles as their own. A good book does more, however, than offer the consolation of not being alone. It instructs and inspires. Hold Fast does both.
Carolyn S. Lembeck, in her review of "Hold Fast," in Best Sellers (copyright © 1980 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), Vol. 40, No. 3, June, 1980, p. 118.
Kevin Major's Far From Shore is a commendable example of writing pared to the essentials in character development, dialogue, plot and interpretation. The narrative technique and the skilful description of Newfoundlanders are equally praiseworthy.
As he did in his award-winning Hold Fast …, Major depicts not only a Newfoundland adolescent, but also the universal adolescent, the strength and fragility of youth caught up in the immediacy of life.
The emotional side of 15-year-old Chris Slade is perceptively and finely drawn. His scenes with the lonely Morrison, capturing the turmoil and love within, are moving and haunt the reader throughout the book. While the...
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Far from Shore is the story of what happens to a family when the work gives out. It's also the story of Chris, who, despite his strong Newfoundland speech, could be a teen-aged boy anywhere yearning for the security of a solid home, awkwardly pursuing the excitement of sex, stabbing at the adventure and responsibility of manhood. It begins on Christmas Eve when Father stumbles home drunk and crashes into the Christmas tree. (p. 21)
Over the next couple of months things get worse until finally Father takes off for Alberta to find work. Mother gets a job in a fast-food restaurant—and more than a friend in the affectionate, lonely widower who owns it. Jennifer immerses herself in her last year...
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For those who like to think that family life is still more or less as it was on Leave It to Beaver, Far From Shore hits hard and low. For others, weary of the sensationalism of juvenile novels, Kevin Major's story is a brave look at how a tough period can harden a boy like a nut. The pressures on the Slade family are like a vise gripping a migraine. Some (as in Major's last novel, Hold Fast) come from the frustrations of life in a small Newfoundland outport—boredom, unemployment, a general yearning to be anyplace but home. But more often they are the pressures of a family that isn't sure it's a unit any longer, and the one who flounders most is 15-year-old Chris. A cocky, wisecracking kid—when...
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[The critically acclaimed novel Hold Fast] is set in Newfoundland where the author lives. The dialect of the main characters, the details of life in a small fishing village, the path of the runaways—all these factors place the story solidly there. This in itself makes the novel unusual, certainly attractive to Canadians and to others interested in Newfoundland.
The fact that the story is exciting and in every way appealing, particularly to teenagers, should cause it to be received by a very wide audience. It is a counterpoint to the numerous suburban-city stories about teens…. Being the new kid and different from everyone else is a theme to which many teens can relate….
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Set in Newfoundland like last year's Hold Fast, this weaker novel [Far From Shore] also deals with a basically likable but undisciplined kid in trouble. In a family where his unemployed father has become a surly drunk and his high-achieving sister, bound for University, is forever "at" her Dad—till he hauls off and hits her one on a disastrous Christmas—Chris flunks ninth grade, starts hanging out with a no-good older crowd, and gets in trouble with police over an episode of gang vandalism he's too drunk to remember…. By the end of the story Dad has returned, Chris (who had considered dropping out) is back in school, and the family is back together, thanks partly to the intercession of the camp...
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The strength of Far From Shore lies in the author's ability to present each of the major characters sympathetically in spite of their shortcomings. Through the device of interior monologue, actions and attitudes are provided with an emotional frame of reference that makes them comprehensible. (p. 52)
Major's use of dialogue is particularly admirable both as a means of projecting character and as a device for conveying regional flavour. He catches the rhythms of Newfoundland speech without the peppering of apostrophes that has annoyed me in dialect stories ever since I encountered "Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby" at an early age. Chris's language is also enlivened by the profanity that Salinger's...
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When Kevin Major's Hold Fast was published three years ago, it was rightly hailed as a milestone in Canadian children's book publishing. Major captured in stark, vivid, detail the violent, troubled life of a Newfoundland teenager. (p. 29)
We approached [Major's second novel. Far From Shore] with some trepidation, knowing that second novels can often be disappointing. However, we were not disappointed. Far From Shore is in many ways similar to Hold Fast. Set in Newfoundland, it is the story of a troubled teenager. Chris Slade is failing in high school, he is drinking too much beer and smoking too much pot. And he finds his girlfriend in the backseat of someone else's car....
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