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Picks and Sticks by Michele Muzzi

Hometown girl writes about figure skating & hockey! Picks and Sticks by Michele Muzzi I do not like competitive sports, getting out of bed in the dark on winter mornings or the bone chilling cold of winter. So, why did I read a young adult novel about elite level figure skating and small town hockey that involves all of this? Because, Picks and Sticks written by Michele Muzzi, who grew up in Parry Sound has set her first novel in her hometown.

What I expected was a simple little book for young teens, what I read is a thoroughly captivating, well-constructed, very well written, and powerful novel. Although the target audience is really thirteen to eighteen year olds, Picks and Sticks is a novel with more depth and compassion than most for that age. I read it from cover to cover in one sitting.

Picks and Sticks opens with the famous 1972 hockey game between Russia and Canada – and don’t we all know where we were on that day. I was working at the York University Bookstore where someone had brought in a television for all the hockey crazy fans. Jane Matagov is in Parry Sound, in high school, watching the game with her classmates. Jane is a figure skater, daughter of a hockey player, Bud, who died some years earlier in an automobile accident. Jane’s mother, Deb, now a caregiver at the local nursing home, was once also a young figure skater heading for fame, and Jane’s brother, Michael, who plays with the Shamrocks shows promise of being an accomplished hockey player. Jane’s skating coach, Leonard, was once her mother’s pairs partner – a man disappointed by his own lack of success as a skater. So, we have our central characters. Added to the mix is Ivan, the Zamboni driver at the local arena, and his daughter, Irina, and various assorted friends of Jane and Michael. And, the arena manager and hockey coach, Al, a thoroughly miserable man - and the principal of the local high school, Mr. Marsh, a man many Parry Sounders will recognize.

Until I moved from Toronto to Parry Sound in 1988 I had no idea of the importance of both hockey and figure skating in the lives of small town Ontario - and I expect, across the country. But, I have learned that it is a passion that many live and breath for – and Michele Muzzi has nailed it.

Jane practices hard, she has just won the Junior Ladies skating event for Northern Ontario and is heading for the Canadians. But, unknown to others, Jane sometimes puts on hockey skates and goes alone to a pond where she skated with her father, the place she feels closest to him. One morning Jane sees Ivan and Irina skating there, playing hockey with each other, and she joins in. This becomes their secret place and secret time. Jane, along with the reader, discovers there is a lot more to their story than is at first apparent, and how that is revealed is one of the most interesting parts of this novel, as we discover how Ivan is connected to Russia, and hockey, and Jane’s father.

At the local arena where Jane practices in the early mornings and after school, and the boys play hockey, there is a rather nasty atmosphere as the coaches compete for ice time. Jane is a very talented, disciplined and committed skater but she feels an intense loneliness as a figure skater with all of the other skaters her competition. But hockey is giving her a community as gradually, with a group of other girls, a sort of team is formed. Jane for the first time experiences the camaraderie of her peers, while skating on a pond overlooking Georgian Bay in the early dawn.

Jane at fifteen is experiencing what a difficult draining age that can be. She has the usual conflicts with her mother, complicated by the death of her father and her skating career. The self confidence and determination that she has as a skater serves her well – she is able to stand up for herself in the face of opposition by the adults in her life. Jane is determined to play hockey against the orders from her mother and her skating coach.

I don’t want to reveal any more of this story. Jane’s development as a figure skater heading for International fame, her relationship with her mother and how that changes over the course of the novel will bring you to tears.

I found myself full of questions about the background to this novel. I know there is very active figure skating, and hockey for boys and girls in Parry Sound. This is after all is the home of Bobby Orr, who does make an appearance in this story. We now have girls and women’s hockey teams here and around the world. So, I picked up the phone to talk with Michele Muzzi.

Michele Muzzi grew up in Parry Sound, living here until she was nineteen years old – most of that time on Church Street, where Jane also lives in Picks and Sticks. Michele was a figure skater herself, “but not a really good one”, she says, and she did do the early morning practices, the figures.

One well-known person who makes an appearance is Hazel McCallion, long time mayor of Mississauga. She did play hockey herself in the late 1920’s, later turning professional in Montreal. Michele told me that girls hockey was quite popular, and organized, in the years before the Second World War, but repressed for some unknown reason in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.

You will also recognize Bobby Orr. Although he was in Parry Sound recuperating from knee surgery, he did not make an appearance at the arena as he does in this novel, but I like to think he would have.

I recognized many Parry Sound locations in this novel – and you will think that you recognize some of the people – but this is fiction and Michele has used the writers’ prerogative to change things to suit her story.

Michele Muzzi will be home in Parry Sound to share her book with hometown readers, on Sunday 15 December from noon until 2 pm she will be at Parry Sound Books to sign her books, and celebrate with family and friends the publication of Picks and Sticks.

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