Sunday, October 23, 2011

Skating on Thin Ice

In Pat Hughes' YA novel, Open Ice, star hockey player Nick Taglio takes a hard hit from behind during one of his high school games and struggles to come to terms with what a grade-three concussion may mean for his future on the ice.

It isn’t Nick's first severe injury. He’s had concussions before. But each one, his doctor explains, takes a little more time and rest to recover from, and this time Dr. Blakeman warns Nick that he may not be able to return to the ice:
“With each successive head injury, the brain takes it a little more personally. It’s as if the brain is saying, ‘Listen, pal, I can’t take much more of this.’ Not only are you slower to recover, but each concussion puts you at greater risk of yet another concussion. You took a big hit Saturday–but a smaller hit might have produced the same results. Remember what happened with the November concussion? It was only rated a grade-two, but you had post-concussive symptoms weeks later. Each time, it takes less and less to compromise the patient’s neurologic function. And that’s why--”
Notice how Hughes uses dialogue here to convey information. But even though it's a mouthful, the doctor's words move the story forward in a dramatic way.

Hughes uses dialogue to advance the story on almost every page of this compelling novel. As you'll see below (in the continuation of the scene), Hughes writes the kind of dialogue that is crisp, crackles with conflict, and keeps increasing the tension:
“I can’t stop playing,” Nick interrupted.
“And I can’t make you stop.”
“But they can.” Nick tilted his head toward the door. “And they will, if you tell them. Can’t we just see how it goes in the next week or two?”
“Lindros still plays, and he--” Nick cut himself off, but too late.
Blakeman jumped on it: “Lindros? This is a pretty dicey time for you to be bringing up Lindros.”
Eric Lindros was Nick’s favorite NHL player, famous for fighting, for scoring, for his head-down, bull-rush playing style... and for concussions.
Nick’s struggle to come to terms with his injury plays out in his relationships with his parents, his girlfriend, his brother, his teachers, his teammates, his doctor and his coach. No one is spared his anger or fear or disappointment, and it’s primarily through the use of dialogue, as in the above passage, that Hughes conveys Nick’s story.

It’s a story that spirals downward as the truth of Nick's predicament becomes clear to him and his mind refuses to clear and his anger (and the fog surrounding him) fails to lift and neither his doctor nor his parents permit him to return to the ice.

In the end there is only Nick’s grudging acceptance that he isn’t yet himself, but he takes comfort and hope from his hockey idol, Lindros, still playing after numerous concussions.

Nick may not be able to skate now. Or in two weeks. Or even two months. But by the time he’s eighteen, he hopes, he may have a chance of returning to the ice.

For now, he has to find pleasure in simply being able to put on his skates and swirl around the frozen pond near his home where he used to skate as a kid. It's a place that harbors memories of the game that he loved as a boy and still loves and hopes to play again:
He skated to the far end of the pond, collected the pucks and turned around. There was the whole empty pond, stretched out before him. Just like in the dream. No boards or lines or circles, no penalty boxes, no refs whistling, no fans screaming, no helmet echoes, nobody tap-tap-tapping their sticks looking for the pass. Nothing but...
“Open ice,” he said.
This was what he missed the most. Not the cheers, the chaos, the goals. But the speed, the exhilaration, the freedom.
For more information about Pat Hughes and Open Ice, check out:

For more information on using dialogue to move the story forward, visit:

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