Teenage life on the prairies

Colin Thomson creates a bizarre tragic and funny portrait of rural teen life in Fourteen

Can you remember anything about the year you turned 14? Does one memory stand out when you think about that year? In Fourteen Colin Thomson asked over 70 seniors who grew up in small prairie towns to share a story about their 14th year. The anecdotes in Thomson’s book are bizarre tragic funny and quite familiar.

Today teens would be lost without text messaging iPods and cellphones. They hang out at malls read graphic novels and refuse to wear anything without a designer label. Fifty years ago many prairie teens lived in small towns or on farms helped with chores and had lived through the Second World War. On the surface it seems as though the differences between the two groups are huge but the stories illustrate that teens are still pretty much interested in the same issues: growing up the opposite sex and having a good laugh. They describe a sexual moral or ethical turning point in the storyteller’s life.

Many of the stories are typical coming-of-age tales with sexual awakenings and an awareness of the adult world as common themes. Others are about realizing how one individual’s actions can have dire consequences for another. In “Birthday” the narrator remembers how a stray gunshot from a hunter blasted through the kitchen window on the morning of her 14th birthday killing her sister and destroying her family. In “Wish” a group of girls the Splendid Six ostracize a new girl at school and want her to disappear. On the first day of the next school year they learn she died over the summer.

Not all of the stories are tragic. Most reflect universal elements of human nature found in any era. In “Berries” a girl eavesdropping on her mother and her friends is shocked when she learns about the facts of life. The sexual innocence of many of the contributors is in huge contrast to the sophisticated teens of today and illustrates one of the biggest gulfs between the generations.

However other stories show how teen life remains the same particularly the humorous memories. Not too many kids tip over outhouses on Halloween in the 21st century but they still egg houses and play practical jokes. Fourteen is a glimpse into a different era on the prairies but in the end it shows how little we’ve changed over time.