A Young Adult story good for anyone under 119

Liane Mahugh’s The Sentinels is a young adult novel set in Ontario, Canada, in a small town about five hours outside of Ottawa. The book follows the lives of two sisters passing from childhood into their teenage years. Kerry, the older sibling, is in a supporting role, while her younger sister Lou, is the main protagonist. The novel traces the lives of these sisters living in with their single mother. They do get visitation with their father, but even an amicable separation of their parents has left some scars. We meet Lou and Kerry as they move out of a series of cramped apartments and into a detached home in a small town, across the street from a field with three old trees standing in a line.

But wait. This is not how the novel begins. In fact, we start out in the past, in Norway circa 930 CE, watching Danish raiders destroy a village, including setting alight a building filled with the town’s children locked inside. As torture they force three old men, beyond their fighting years and who failed to stop the attack, watch the building burn and listen to the children’s screams, before they themselves are hanged.

Hmmm. Three old men. Three old trees.

While The Sentinels is not a fantasy novel—it reads like contemporary fiction, a young adult coming-of-age story—there is a hint of something… special going on. I’ll say no more, because potentiality is sauce for the goose.

The Sentinels is a story about growing up, about that transition from childhood to adulthood, where responsibility and the weight of life begin to overwhelm the childish sense of wonder, of feeling carefree and innocent. Nowhere is this more evident than in the failure of the legal system to deal with a sexual assault, one that ends up essentially punishing the victim instead of the perpetrator. The family becomes a pariah in the community, as friends and family of the perpetrator take his side over this group of newcomers to their community.

While this tragedy unfolds, and the siblings must navigate a town where they are no longer welcome, or safe, their father announces he is moving to Ottawa, about five hours away. This means their weekend stays with him will come to an end. From now on they will only see him on holidays, and possibly school break.

Childhood’s end. Yet Lou’s guardians, her sentinels across the road in that field, continue to offer comfort, and even more. At the climax of the story they act as protectors, protecting the sisters in a way they could not protect the children of their own village so long ago.

The supernatural brings a catharsis, but does not prevent the inevitable and merciless advance of time. Nothing can do that, and Mahugh understands this. This is why, despite protecting the sisters from danger more than once, her sentinels are themselves defeated by that cruel reality all children must endure: nothing lasts forever.

The Sentinels is not only a great book for young readers, it is an entertaining and fun read for old folks like me. I did not want to put the book down, because I wanted to know what happened next. Mahugh got me invested in the characters and caught up in the nostalgia of my own childhood – I remember the bumpy ice and stalks of dead grass poking through the homemade backyard skating rinks of my youth. What more could anyone ask of a book, or its writer?

Oh, and that groundhog routine? Priceless.