The Telegraph-Journal lauds Amphibian

By Sylvie Fitzgerald
Saint John Telegraph-Journal
April 25 2009

Amphibian, the debut novel by Fredericton writer Carla Gunn, is the story of Phineas Walsh, an 'eco-anxious' nine-year-old with an encyclopedic knowledge of animals and nature and a penchant for staring off into space. Phin is a disarming character with the intelligence and vulnerability of Salinger's Holden Caulfield and the clear-thinking non-conformity of Vonnegut's Harrison Bergeron.

Struggling with his parents' separation and the recent loss of his grandfather, Phin has trouble sleeping. He stages late-night kitchen raids to purge his home of animal-tested products and, along with his best friend Bird, plans and executes 'Mission Amphibian,' a misadventure designed to rescue the class pet Cuddles the frog, just before art class on Wonderful Wednesday.

School days fraught with daily 'growlings' from 'Mrs. Wardman, public enemy No. 1,' and recess with Lyle, a bully 'born without the do-not-kill gene, like some scientists think happened to Ted Bundy and Paul Bernardo,' Phin's piercing intellect is not exactly an advantage in the busy-work, word-puzzle world of public school.

Phin knows that the answers in the teacher's guidebook are not always right and his attempts to make the world a better place land him in therapy with the uninspiring Dr. Barrett.

Gunn writes convincingly as a nine-year-old boy. It's not hard to imagine she's been on intimate terms with one or two. You can almost smell the cheese strings and peanut-free lunchables, and, beyond that, one experiences something a bit more subtle - a blend of wonder and earnestness and the best part, a dash of purity of heart that you just don't see in those of the double digits.

Gunn has given us a true gift. Amphibian is a look at the world through the eyes of a young logician as he examines the mindless consumerism and egocentric callousness of our everyday rituals, routinely reinforced by well-meaning liars.

Sorting through the usual childhood fabrications such as Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny, Phin graduates to bigger lies such as, 'It's going to be OK,' and real whoppers like 'One person can't change the world.'

Banned from watching the Green Channel, Phin creates a fictional world on Planet Reuill peopled by Gorachs, mindless consumers who are cruel to animals and appear to be much like us, at least on the inside.

In his spare time he considers the bigger questions such as, 'Would you rather be bad and have everyone think you're good, or good and have everyone think you're bad?' Or, 'How can a person can love a person one day and then not love them the next?'

While Phin struggles for answers, Gunn's readers will have some questions of their own, such as: What is crazy? A boy who can't sleep because of the state of the world, or nations of sleepers resting peacefully, unconcerned that 25 per cent of all mammal species are on the red list under the caption 'threatened?'

'In harsh environments you've got to have at least one good friend you can trust.' For Phin that person is his grandmother, a biologist who takes him for a walk by the ocean, a place where 'the Celts believed the barrier between the living and the spirit world is thin.'

Phin finds his way there with a powerful medicine mined from a worry rock, the comforting knowledge that he is not alone and the simple truth that it is "what you do with your thoughts is that counts."

The end of Phin's fictional story on planet Reuill is a bit of a cliffhanger. It seems aliens have intervened and given each greedy Gorach a single spikit tree to care for, to provide them with food and shelter and nothing else: "no jingle worm bracelets, no Oster nostril nozzles, nothing extra." If that works out they get to roam Reuill free again. If not, well maybe, just maybe they don't deserve the happy ending we're all hoping for.

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