Caring Teen Cook Bonds With His Grandpa In New Romance


Méira Cook’s new novel about seven months in the life of Charlie Minkoff and his grandfather, Oscar, is no easy read. It challenges conventional ideas about adolescence, parenthood, and the experience of intersex children. And, at times, his long fanciful exchanges can test the reader’s patience.

A writer and scholar from Winnipeg, Cook has won numerous poetry awards and for her first two novels, both set in South Africa, where she grew up. In her new novel, she shifted her setting to Winnipeg, and her writing took on a more satirical twist.

Robyn Shapiro photo

Méira Cook’s latest novel is set in Winnipeg, taking a more satirical turn than most of her previous work.


Photo by Robyn Shapiro

Méira Cook’s latest novel is set in Winnipeg, taking a more satirical twist than most of her previous works.

We meet Charlie Minkoff when he is 13 and starting high school. He has never met his father and has no friends. Charlie knows he’s a boy and has consented to hormone therapy, but his fatness and high-pitched voice make others wonder. From the second year, he realized “that he would never again inhabit a world where the eyes of others were not the mirrors in which he saw himself”.

Charlie’s mother, Jules, gives him little direction. Absent every night due to her job as a bartender, she channels her anger at various losses into her installation art. When Charlie was five, Jules fell through the ice on a nearby river and lost his voice, so all of his communication with him is in writing.

But despite all his problems, Charlie comes across as the most mature and thoughtful teenager you’ll ever meet. He attends classes. He does his homework. He shops, feeds and walks his needy little dog, Gellman. He even takes out the trash of two elderly residents of the decrepit building where he and Jules live.

<p>the complete disaster</p>
<p>the complete disaster</p>
<p>For an assignment in his Ancestry Studies class, Charlie interviews his 90-year-old zeid, Oscar, who survived the Holocaust as a child.  When Charlie realizes that Oscar regrets never having had a Bar Mitzvah, he immediately contacts an Orthodox rabbi to arrange the ceremony, and at the rabbi’s suggestion, Charlie agrees to a joint Bar Mitzvah with his grandfather.			</p>
<p>In the months leading up to this event, Charlie’s regular Friday visits to his grandfather turn into kibitzy debates about the power of God and the role of free will.  Despite a life that many would describe as a tragedy, Oscar remains an optimist and a strong supporter of “Free Willy”.  He has a lot to say and usually manages to have the last word.  “Progress”, he believes, “is not an escalator leading from the Garden of Eden directly to heaven”.			</p>
<p>What control do we have over our lives?  That’s the question here.  At the time of Charlie’s birth, both Jules and Oscar rejected surgery to remove his intersex features.  Charlie’s choices may be limited, but the onus is on him to make them.  And this is the case for all the important characters here, including Héloïse (Weeza), Jules’ best friend since childhood.			</p>
<p>Weeza is one of the strongest voices in the novel.  She is a long distance truck driver and a lesbian and is proud of both her choices.  His long emails on the go are gritty and funny and very real.  “I fucking love my life, hemorrhoids, artery-hardening cooking, all that stuff. There’s nothing like hauling other people’s trash across the continent to free you from personal desire, to free you from need.			</p>
<p>The novel ends, after the Bar Mitzvah and before the pandemic, with Charlie on a road trip with Weeza.  Nothing goes as planned for either of them, but when the going gets tough, they each make wise decisions.  On the elevator to heaven (or on the way to finding his own life), Charlie took a step or two forward, at least.			</p>
<p>Faith Johnston is a writer from Winnipeg.			</p>
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