CM Magazine Review - 250 Hours
Reviewed by: Ellen Wu
In 250 Hours, an absorbing read which will take far less time to read than the amount of time in the title, two teens’ lives intersect with critical consequences. Sara Jean, just recently graduated from high school, is dutiful to a fault, waiting hand and foot on her morbidly obese grandmother. This is the loving grandmother who brought her up after her own mother walked out on her when she was a mere infant, but sometimes her grandmother’s love suffocates Sara Jean more than anything else. Bound by duty, headed toward the expected role of marrying the son of a local car dealer, Sara Jean, nevertheless, chafes at the life before her. She aspires instead to be a writer, to go to college. With her college acceptance letter lying in her desk drawer, and a manuscript she works on in fits and starts in between attending to her grandmother’s needs, Sara Jean’s summer routine is disrupted when Jess enters her life. Her story is told in first-person.
Jess is a troubled young Metis teen who has to serve 250 hours of community service for his predilection for starting fires in small, contained spaces. He grew up with the hurt of being abandoned by his alcoholic father, of growing up on the margins of the reserve as well as the margins of the largely white and relatively affluent fictional community of Edelburg. Anchored by the support of his grandmother, Kokum, he, nevertheless, flounders in finding his path, wavering between dreams of heading west to Vancouver, or languishing right where he is. Told through a close third-person narrative, Jess is seen to be impulsive and brooding, but smart and perceptive as well.
Jess shows up at Sara Jean’s doorstep in order to fulfil his community service hours, tasked to clean out her grandparents’ garage which is filled with decades’ worth of junk. Amongst all the boxes of junk, however, Sara Jean discovers letters written by students (including one by Jess’ own father), and other items from her grandfather’s past when he was a teacher at the residential school. Moccasins that Jess’s own grandmother made for her children sit in another box. Readers learn that Sara Jean’s grandfather left the residential school system because he could not stand seeing the mistreatment of the students. Sara Jean, completely ignorant about the legacy of the residential school, is incredulous about the injustices of the school, and she finds no one in her community who cares to shed any more light on the matter. Jess is equally unforthcoming in providing information.
The two connect over a fishing expedition together, but, despite a pull towards each other, more than anything else, they recognize they both share similar struggles. The attraction between the two of them doesn’t seem necessary to the plot as the story could have proceeded along well enough without it. Their mutual attraction, however, does send Sara Jean’s mean-spirited boyfriend into a jealous frenzy and provides the impetus for him to frame Jess with an act of arson. Meanwhile, Sara Jean shows a restrained and un-teen-like maturity during the most candid conversation the two have about their almost-feelings for each other: she tells Jess nothing could happen between them because “they both want different things.”
Other subplots in the novel involve Jess’ discovering that one of his friends wants to be a drug runner for major gangs, a move he strongly opposes since it would bring criminal elements into the reserve. This is set against the backdrop of the province wanting to create a reservoir that would flood the residential school and bring new jobs to the community. In turn, this raises a debate over the future of the reserve—what is the appropriate way to commemorate the residential school’s dark legacy? What do they do about the dead buried on the school’s grounds? Will the provincial government really come through to provide meaningful change and opportunity for the reserve’s inhabitants?
The alternating chapters between Sara Jean and Jess build up to the climaxes of Sara’s grandmother’s death and the fire at the ruins of the residential school, a fire which is pinned on Jess. Jess’s father also stumbles into the picture and discloses a truly heart-wrenching tale of how he left the residential school but couldn’t save his younger brother who is buried there. Sara Jean faces the decision to do something to help Jess out of his scrape or to go to Winnipeg to buy her university textbooks. She decides to drop in on his Kokum’s house and let her know Jess was in trouble, something she very nearly would have avoided doing. In the end, Jess’s deadbeat father comes to his rescue in an unexpected way. Jess attends an elders’ meeting in which he finds that his place is to remain on the reserve, to protect it and find ways for it to thrive on its own terms. Sara Jean, meanwhile, recovers from the grief of losing her grandmother, makes first attempts to reconnect with her long-lost mother, and decides to go to college after all.
Nelson’s ambitious story has a wide sweep—using two teens’ lives as a window for exploring the troubling history of the residential school system, the racism First Nations and Metis people encounter on a daily basis, the struggles they have now to establish their future, and the non-First Nations lack of response. It is a novel with great potential for opening of discussion on such social issues, for creating awareness through the eyes of Sara Jean. While Sara Jean isn’t exactly perfect (her reluctance to help Jess at all would be a disappointment to readers), readers can’t help but feel relief for her when she breaks free from her narrow life and sees all the possibilities before her.