One in Every Crowd, by Ivan E. Coyote – Book Review

Maybe you never gathered with the neighbourhood kids to roll each other down a hill inside dump-truck tires.  Maybe you never had a daily routine of playing ‘comb-ball’ until someone cried and your aunt made you all stop.  And maybe, just maybe…you don’t even know what ‘comb-ball’ is.  But what is almost certain is that you’ll connect with the words Ivan E. Coyote projects in the pages of One In Every Crowd.

This wonderful collection of vividly depicted snippets of life addresses the dangerous power of normalcy and how we perceive it.  It’s a collection of stories that lovingly express moments of beauty and emotions that are common to the human experience and are sure to raise a glow of recognition in any reader.  What better argument for acceptance could there be?

One in Every Crowd isn’t quite so much about acceptance by others as it is about acceptance of oneself.  The introduction, a letter from the author to her fifteen-year-old self, sets up the inevitable curiosity of reflection.  We can’t wish that we hadn’t had the experiences we once did.

For Coyote, that experience is to never have started smoking, and fair enough.  But the letter, like the book, is primarily a big, understanding, comfortable hug – a slice of non-exclusive, purely generous human sympathy.

If that sounds overly sentimental, it’s probably indicative of one of the book’s main strengths, which is its plain, honest tone.

Modern literature, especially that aimed at young adults, is often entirely preoccupied with irony. By contrast, Coyote’s stories are quietly honest, and because of it, we fill up with affection for characters, or resentment, or youthful exuberance, at the same time that she does.

The book speaks like a friend over coffee, and because we don’t doubt its truthfulness, we respond emotionally rather than analytically – it’s refreshing to disburden oneself of hip sophistication for an hour or two and think like a couple of plain ol’ humans.

The book’s stories of childhood in Yukon, adulthood on the coast, and family everywhere are amusing, sad, and inspiring.  However, the prevalent concern throughout is to make the lonely feel connected, not just in the way that any of us might connect with stories of love or family, but also specifically through a recognition of the things that make us lonely.

The most powerful moments in One in Every Crowd come from the struggle of characters to be proud and accepting of the very attributes in themselves that can serve to cause loneliness.

A section of the book is devoted to Francis, a boy who we meet at age three, proudly prancing in colourful tights and a makeshift tube top…his mother’s “little drag queen.”  His self-assurance is infectious (and his style, we presume, impeccable), and the portrait of this intelligent, audacious child is empowering.  He is a reminder of that children’s skill that most of us manage to deprive ourselves of somewhere along the way – the ability to question, and to act, without preconception.  Francis’ love for women’s clothing at a young age isn’t a calculated statement; it’s unqualified honesty and unabashed self-expression.

One of the strongest stories in the book is “Just a Love Story,” in which the traditional love story (the type that ends, “…and we lived happily ever after”) is prefaced by the conversation of five performers on their way to a high school in Surrey the day before Valentine’s Day.  One poet suggests that they should all do love poems, and Coyote, the only queer performer, responds that for her to talk about love will be seen as a political statement.  “What if I just want to tell a love story?” she asks.  In this question, Coyote highlights the power of her book.

The ability of the writing to transcend the specifics of experience and evince the commonalities in all of us is really its greatest triumph.  Stories of the moments and thoughts and emotions that all humans share are simultaneously a great boon to those who feel uncomfortably different, and a great reminder to those who feel exclusively normal.