Out of Focus


Out of Focus:

Published by Kids Can Press, Toronto and New York. It is not available as an e-book as yet, but should be available soon, I hope.

My love of photography; my love for the lake country in northwestern Ontario; and my love of family history research all came together in Out of Focus. It started out as a ghost story, but I felt the real story was being lost - that of how past events affect present events - and how sometimes it seems, despite life altering events, nothing will ever change and everything will always remain despairingly out of focus. 

For sixteen year old Bernice Dodd, Black Spruce Lake is a lucky break. No more roach-infested apartments or bullies in the hallways. No more avoiding the landlord or sneaking away in the middle of the night because the rent is overdue.
Photo Margaret Buffie 2011

But some things will never change. Bernie will still have to take care of her brother and sister. Her mother will keep disappearing on drinking binges and find yet another creep of a boyfriend. And Bernie's anger toward her mother will continue to grow.

Could Black Spruce Lodge on a beautiful lake in northwestern Ontario, which her mother inherited from an eccentric old aunt, be the family's last chance to get their lives in focus? Will Bernie find some perspective - on her emotions, on Jack, the boy next door, and on Tony, the good-looking novelist across the lake? And will the darkroom where her great aunt used to develop her photos help Bernie and her mother finally get things back in focus - able to finally see what is true and good in their in lives? One thing is very clear, though: rage doesn't let go without a fight.

Award and Honours.

Nominated - Stellar Award, B.C.'s Teen Readers' Choice Awards 2008/9 
Chosen - Our Choice  (STARRED*)YA fiction novel by The Canadian Children's Book Centre
"A star (*) and a book cover in the Our Choice catalogue signify titles of exceptional calibre."
Chosen - PSLA's Young Adult Top Forty Fiction List
Nominated - McNally Robinson Book for Young People Award.
Chosen: OLA Best Bets - Top Ten Canadian Books For Young Adults; Ontario Library Association
Nominated - The Snow Willow Award

Kids Can Press, Toronto, New York, 2006
ISBN-13: 9781553379553 (bound) ISBN-10: 1553379551 (bound)
ISBN-13: 9781553379560 (paperback) ISBN-10:155337956X (paperback)

Bernie Dodd is sixteen, wise, and innocent in a world that she would love to control by looking through her camera and snapping only the happy pictures. The metaphor of photography proliferates throughout, but is not allowed to overshadow the story of a young girl finding herself while she is busy taking care of those who need her. Bernie is disgusted that her mother cannot kick her alcoholism. She comes up with a plan to get her mother out of the city, giving them all a chance to start a new life. She worries about her younger brother and sister, knowing that she cannot meet their needs but shouldering the burden of raising them because she cannot trust her mother. Her world begins to gradually change. Her mother begins to get her life under control, staying away from alcohol, paying more attention to Ally and Jojo, and attempting to finally be a real mother to Bernie. The emotions Bernie experiences when this happens are realistically portrayed, giving Bernie the personality of a genuine teen, no sugarcoating needed. Told through Bernie's focus and in her words, this is a touching, authentic coming-of-age story. The happy ending is plausible because the characters change gradually and convincingly. Bernie is one of those rare characters that I wanted to spend more time with when the book ended.

Left to raise her younger brother and sister, 16 year old Bernice Dodd has too complicated a life. Celia, their alcoholic mother, is too busy lapsing in and out of drunken binges and attracting dead-end boyfriends to notice much else. During fleeting periods of sobriety, there are promises to drop the cycle, but Bernie has heard it all before. If it weren't for her passion for photography and the support of Celia's best friend Lucy, Bernie would go crazy.
Bernie suddenly discovers that her great aunt Charlotte has mysteriously left her beloved northwestern Ontario lodge to Celia. Black Spruce Lodge could be a new beginning for them all, if Bernie can convince her mother to have the unknown property repaired and turned into a family business.
Will Celia take the project seriously and stay sober long enough to get it off the ground? Can she win back Bernie's trust? As her family begins to heal, the real question becomes whether Bernie can let go of her resentment and give herself a new beginning. Can she learn to reach out to people, instead of hiding behind her camera as her only refuge?
Out of Focus is an emotional story about wrestling a hurting family out of the grip of alcoholism. Captivatingly written from Bernie's point of view, it is heart-wrenchingly realistic yet hopeful in its portrayal of childhood needs, teenage angst, and adult struggles.
It is a mistake to struggle alone, and worth finding freedom from rage. This lesson - subtly taught as the reader is swept along on Bernie's journey - is the gift of Margaret Buffie's novel. Teens surviving any kind of scars will love this book. It is the story of how a family seizes the chance to be happy at last. Reviewed by Christina Minaki - a Toronto writer, Children's Book News, Canadian Children's Book Centre, Fall 2006, Vol.29 No.4

Amateur photographer Bernie, 16, tries desperately to keep life together for her two younger siblings despite their alcoholic single mother's string of broken promises, lost jobs, and lack of stable housing. When Celia goes on a bender and calls off her wedding to boring nice-guy Mario, it nearly breaks Bernie's spirit. Then she discovers a document that details her mother's inheritance of a run-down lodge on a lake. The woman had secretly put it up for sale, but Bernie threatens to call social services and have her siblings taken away if Celia refuses to move there. Mother and daughter work hard to make the place habitable, and the younger children begin to thrive. Neighbors help out, Celia stops drinking, and life seems to be improving despite many rough spots. But why can't Bernie lose her fear and begin to trust Celia, and why does the teen's anger threaten her relationships? Buffie excels at creating credible characters and placing them in situations that allow them to grow and develop. Susan Riley, Mount Kisco Public Library, New York, October 2006

CANADIAN MATERIALS . . . . Volume XIII Number 1 . . . . September 1, 2006 Grades 7 and up / Ages 12 and up. Review by Kristin Butcher. **** /4Excerpt: So did I win that round? Maybe. But, let's face it. I had to win every round. Yet somehow I didn't feel as sure about everything. Would it be better to sell the place after we'd cleaned it and slapped on some paint? And if it did sell - if that's what I really wanted - how long would it be before the money was gone and we were back to crappy apartments and Celia's nights out? Something in my gut told me that this place was our only chance at normal life.
And that is all 16-year-old Bernice Dodd wants-a normal life. She isn't yearning for a closet full of clothes, a shiny sports car or nightly parties. She doesn't ache to be a rock star or a super-model, and she isn't waiting for the most handsome guy in the world to fall in love with her. All she wants is a normal life, and that means a decent place to live, enough money for food and rent, and a mother who is there to make the meals and dole out cookies and band-aids. It doesn't seem like a lot to ask, but as far as Bernie is concerned, she might as well be asking for a summer vacation on Jupiter.
For several years, Bernie's life has been anything but normal. It began when her dad started hitting the bottle and then his wife, Celia. Though he tried to get himself straight, the situation had already gone sideways, and he eventually left the family and moved back to Newfoundland. That's when Celia fell apart and took up drinking herself. She went on binges, disappearing for days, so that it was up to Bernie to look after herself and her younger brother, Ally. Then Celia moved the family in with a new boyfriend, promptly became pregnant, and in no time that relationship had turned sour too. After that, things really fell apart.

Celia shuffled her three children from one nightmare apartment to another every time she lost a crummy job because of her drinking, and it was up to Bernie to look after the kids and her alcoholic mother too.
So when Celia stayed sober for four straight months and became engaged to nice, reliable, responsible Mario-the grocer, Bernie allowed herself to hope life was turning around. But on the eve of her wedding, Celia called it off and promptly got drunk.

Looking through Celia's papers for a wayward receipt, Bernie discovers a will in which her great aunt has left a fishing lodge to Celia. Seeing this as the last chance for survival, Bernie insists the family move there and try running it as a business. Celia resists, but when Bernie threatens to bring in social services, her mother is forced to go along with the plan. It is at the lodge that everyone in the family begins to recover-everyone except Bernie, that is. She has been forced to pick up the pieces for so long that she is all out of faith and trust, refusing to believe life can change, even though that is what she desperately wants. She becomes angrier with each passing day, alienating the very people she wants to be close to, and acting irrationally, so that she doesn't even understand herself.
Margaret Buffie has earned herself a reputation as a fantasy writer, so Out of Focus is a bit of a surprise-albeit as very pleasant one. The novel's title reflects Bernie's love for and dependence on photography. Snapping photos is her lone lifeline and the means by which she observes and analyzes her life. It is also her link to her past and her hope for the future. But it isn't until she puts the camera down and starts looking at her world through her own eyes that she finally really sees it as it really is.
Since Out of Focus is primarily a novel concerned with relationships and internal conflicts, character development is key. The cast is large, but all the characters are realistically drawn and evolve in a convincing manner. Likewise the plot unfolds naturally and comes to a credible resolution.
Out of Focus is an excellent read.
Highly Recommended.
Kristin Butcher lives in Campbell River, BC, and writes for children.

Out of Focus is an old too-true sounding story about a teenager with extra burdens, looking after her younger siblings because their single mother is an irresponsible alcoholic. The motif that appears and reappears is that of photography, with interesting quotes at the start of each chapter. Bernice is an accomplished photographer who uses her camera to distance herself. from the chaos of her life. When she finds out that a great-aunt she never met had died and left the family a lodge on a lake, she insists that her mother take them there to start a new life. The place is in ruins, but so are their lives; Bernice insists they work hard to fix the place up so they can live there, making a living by running a store for the summer visitors. This plan begins to work out, with the help of friendly neighbors who adored the woman who was their aunt. As the mother Celia gets stronger, and the little children find their own way, Bernice oddly gets more and more angry. Her fury drives her, but confuses her as well. Jack, the teenager next door who shares Bernice's knowledge of photography, teases her and obviously is attracted to her, but he has a hard time getting through her defenses. Family secrets are revealed, understanding begins to seep into their relationships, and readers are treated to a moving story about a remarkably strong teenager, Bernice, who has not known much happiness, but finally begins to enjoy life. Buffie gets it right. Claire Rosser,

KLIATT September 2006 KLIATT is a bimonthly magazine, publishing reviews of paperback books, hardcover fiction for adolescents, audiobooks, and educational software recommended for libraries and classrooms serving young adults in the USA and Canada.

Sixteen-year-old Bernice Dodd hasn't had an easy life. With a father who took off when she was little and a mother who goes on drinking binges, Bernie's had to be a parent to her two younger siblings and try to keep the family afloat. When Bernie finds out her mother's aunt left them Black Spruce Lodge in her will, Bernie sees a way out of the run down apartments, and the sudden moves when the rent goes unpaid. Bernie wants to make this work, but her anger towards her mother keeps her from really being happy. With a little help from the Broom's, the family next door, can Bernie and her mother patch things up enough to give being a family a real try? A wonderfully gripping and intense novel you won't want to put down! (Young Adult) Review By Christina Lewis

THE EDGE OF THE FOREST - a monthly online journal devoted to children's literature.
There don't seem to be a great many Canadian authors prominent in the U.S. YA market, but Margaret Buffie is definitely a name I've heard before. Her ninth book for young adults, Out of Focus, has a dramatic storyline worthy of a problem novel, but the intriguing and varied cast of characters is well-realized, creating a story that's much less easily classified into a single genre.
Sixteen-year-old Bernie Dodd is wise beyond her years. "When you stop being a drunk," she tells her mother, "I'll call you Mom" (29). Celia's alcoholism and irresponsible behavior are tearing the family apart-little sister Jojo is overeating, younger brother Ally is on the verge of becoming obsessive-compulsive, and Bernie increasingly finds herself in charge of her siblings while her mother agonizes in bed with a hangover or disappears for days at a time. Sometimes Bernie feels like the only thing holding her together is her love of photography. It seems like things are only going to get worse, not better, when Celia skips out on her own wedding to a halfway decent guy.
Until, that is, Bernie runs across her great-aunt's will in a box of household papers. Celia has inherited an old bed-and-breakfast four hours into the wilderness, called Black Spruce Lodge. Maybe-just maybe-if Bernie can get them all out of Winnipeg and get her mother away from the tempting influences of alcohol and clubbing, she can bring their family back together again.
Most of the action takes place at the lakeside lodge, which Celia insists they're only going to inhabit long enough to fix it up. But Bernie finds a darkroom full of enigmatic photos by her great-aunt, and her brother and sister seem happier and more relaxed than they've been in ages. They start to settle in at the lodge, meeting their neighbors: a handsome young author named Tony, whom Bernie rapidly develops a crush on; and the Broom family-widower John, his mother Ruby, and his teenage son Jack. Can Bernie let go of her anger at her mother, and her sense of responsibility to her siblings, enough to let herself get close to new friends? Or will she always feel this mistrustful, this out of focus?
Living a secluded life in a peaceful setting, Bernie very slowly learns to relax and let go of some of her anger and mistrust. She learns some startling things about her family in the process, including the mysterious great-aunt who left them the lodge. But for the healing process to be complete, she has to learn to forgive her mother and herself. Subplots of potential romance and friendship complicate things even further, but the story ends on a note of real hope, like the sun coming out after a storm.
Unfortunately, I'd absorbed all of Bernie's mistrust and wasn't entirely ready to forgive and let things go so easily; as a narrator, she has a very strong voice and a very particular viewpoint. This is definitely one of the book's strengths, though. I was really drawn in by Bernie's character and cheered for her every time she wouldn't take her mother's excuses; every time she comforted her younger brother; every time she persevered and took more photographs despite everything else going on in her life. The transformative power of art is a very strong and worthwhile theme-it offers the hope that life can be brought back into focus despite all the odds. Reviewed by a.fortis (Sarah Stevenson),

Out of Focus, by Margaret Buffie is about 16-year old Bernie, who must deal with an alcoholic mother and raise her younger siblings. Mom inherits a small lodge on a lake up north, but will Bernie resort to blackmail to get her to move there to start life afresh? There are lots of dysfunctional family novels, but this is one of the best.
Reviewer: Pippa Wysong for the Toronto Star

When Bernie's great-aunt Charlotte died, she left something behind for her niece. Bernie's mother, Celia, inherited the Black Spruce Lodge. Now they have a place to live, where they won't ever have to leave in the dead of night to avoid paying the overdue rent. Things aren't as easy as one might hope, though. Bernie's angry at her mother, and can't believe Celia could even try to stop drinking, or take some responsibility for her children, Bernie's younger siblings who have been taken care of by their older sister for years. That's the most dominant emotion Bernie feels: anger, specifically at her mother. It makes life out of focus (as the title says). Can Black Spruce Lodge help Bernie get things in focus? Out Of Focus is one of the best young adult books I've read recently. It was very well- written, with believable, unique characters. The story, told from Bernie's point of view, surpassed any expectations I had of a novel from an author I'd never heard of. Now that I have read a book written by Margaret Buffie, I'll certainly be looking for more from her. The story is interesting and original, rather than the same old books I've been reading lately. Out Of Focus was certainly worth reading. FLAMINGNET.com

THE CAMERA DOESN'T LIE: A review by Marla Arbach:
Sixteen-year-old Bernice Dodd is used to being the grown-up in her family. When her irresponsible mother falls off the wagon again, Bernie decides to make a change: she's moving the family to the country, to fix up and live in a run-down bed & breakfast they just inherited. In spite of her mother's protests, Bernie manages to make it work for a while. But Black Spruce Lodge changes everyone, and eventually Bernie realizes that she's got to let go of the anger that's clouding her perspective--something easier said than done for a girl who's been let down one too many times. Tough yet vulnerable Bernie's rich narration alternates smart dialogue, rapid action, revealing interior monologue and lingering, intimate descriptions of characters' expressions. All characters are equally well drawn, from flawed mother Celia to charming playboy Tony to nosy but well-meaning neighbour Jack who challenges Bernie to quit acting like a child and to see what's really there, what her photographs catch that she won't let herself see. A delightful and totally believable story about learning how and whom to trust when you swore you'd never trust anyone but yourself ever again. yabookscentral.com (Five Stars)

Out of Focus is not for the weak at heart. It is also not only for YA readers. Margaret Buffie has nailed her characters perfectly. Again. As an adult reading this novel, I learned as much about my own mistaken interpretation of the world as we could ever hope that a younger reader might. It is true, too, what she says about black & white photography: “if you really wanted to catch the essence of people—see what was really going on inside them—you had to use black-and-white film. … Color shots are like sunglasses, reflecting back social masks” (20). Buffie’s text is like a black-and-white photo: she doesn’t pull her punches, but presents us with a concentrated version of her protagonist's emotional turmoil: pure, unmitigated adolescence.
Bernie (Bernice Dodd) is in charge of her life. She has to be: her father has deserted them, and her mother is an alcoholic who takes off on binges and doesn’t return for days. For four years—since she was 12—Bernie has had to be mother to herself, her younger brother and sister, and even her own mother, Celia. At the opening of the book, she has had enough. The level of anger Bernie feels at first seems not only completely reasonable, but even productive. Her threats to call in Social Services force her mother to take the family to a property in the north-western Ontario woods, leaving behind the lure of Winnipeg, its bars, and its enabling associations. Once they reach their old family home, bequeathed to Celia by her mother’s sister Charlotte, Bernie’s plan to establish a sense of security and purpose within the family begins to work. Why, then, does Bernie become progressively more angry? Why can she not allow herself to heal?
In a less realistic novel, the woods and the lake, and the fresh misty morning air would cause a healing to seep up and catch Bernie unaware; we would peacefully watch the process, comfortable in knowing what must happen in a children’s book. But life does not always work according to narrative expectations, not even Bernie’s. She is powerless to affect her own transformation: “Happy? I wanted me to be happy, too. But it wasn’t going to happen any time soon. … I was fighting a war here. If no one understood that, then tough” (192). Our own angst growing with hers, we watch Bernie slipping towards the edge of a recognized social and emotional chasm that is hard to climb out of. Our own anger builds as we watch her making mistakes, when we can so clearly see—as do some of the adults around her—what is happening in her life. Like those around her, we are no longer sure we even like Bernie. Buffie reveals her remarkable narrative abilities in showing us only enough to understand her characters’ emotions, never enough to fully anticipate the plot. In the end, even when what we wanted to happen comes to pass, we are exhausted by the emotional roller-coaster we have just been on with Bernie. But like Bernie—and hopefully the adolescent reader—we have learned a powerful lesson: no matter how wrong we are, no matter how far off track, it is always possible to start over, sometimes even to mend the rents in our emotional world.
"That Which Matters" Karyn Huenemann, reviewer


Hi. My name is Samantha, I'm 14 years old and I thought that I would send you an email saying how much that I love your book 'Out of Focus'. Out of Focus, is probably the best book I have read yet. It shows me that I'm not the only one living the kind of live that Bernice is. I like it how Bernice has such strong confidence in herself! Even though Bernica is a character in your book she is like a role model to me, she tells me that you should stand up for yourself and don't let people push you around like her mother does. Anyways, I hope to read or find more books of yours. Samantha

I recently borrowed your book Out of Focus from my local public library, and I have fallen in love with it! : Your style of writing is so descripitive; I could create images in my head of every scene. I have my own ideas on how Bernice, Jack, Celia, Ally, Jojo, etc look and it makes reading your book even more interesting. My favorite character is Jack. He seems like a hottie, and his personality is just lovable!! I just wanted to give you kudos for your great book! I hope it becomes a movie one day because the plot is so capitivating! Wow! Still cannot get over your book! (I don't want to return it to the library, but if I don't I'll get fined. ;-) Hope you're having a great day.... or night. Marie

Fed 24, 2024

Dear Margaret,

I hope this email finds you well! I wanted to share the profound experience your book “Out of Focus” had on my childhood years. 

From a young age, I was an avid reader and found escapism in the stories I read. One day, while in grade 5 or 6, I stumbled across your book Out of Focus in my school library. Intrigued by the cover art, and drawn to the synopsis, I checked it out with the intention of starting it later that day. 

As I delved into the world of Bernie and her family, I felt validated in a way that I had never been before. As a child of a mother with problematic substance use, an absent father, and the victim of the children’s welfare system, I was no stranger to the feelings of frustration, fear, and lack of control Bernie had. As I continued to read, I dreamt of a world in which my mother could inherit a property that would mend our broken family and magically fix all the issues we had. Your book truly allowed me to learn that I wasn’t alone in my trauma and grief, and that there were other families out there like mine. 

Unfortunately, during one of my many moves in life my copy (that I may or may not have forgot to return) was lost in the transition. I recently remembered the title of the book, and I am eager to purchase another copy so I can re-read it and remember how comforting it was to a younger version of myself. 

I want you to know that my mom did eventually get sober, and gave birth to my younger sister who I absolutely adore. She passed away March of last year, and although she wasn’t present for all of my life I cherish the time I had with her and my family. My life has had its ups and downs, and is far from what I imagined it to be growing up; but I know I wouldn’t be where I am right now if not for your book. You successfully captured the experience of being a child to an addict is like, and gave me an opportunity to feel represented and optimistic for the future. For that I thank you, from the bottom of my heart. 


Thanks so much Marie, Samantha and Fabian! I love hearing from readers. Your letters are just wonderful.

Growing up was tough for me, also, as my dad died when I was 12, and my mom had to work two jobs to take care of her 4 girls and hold on to the house we lived in.

She worked at night with a catering company and we rarely saw her and in an office during the day.

I write about changes in life that occur for various reasons  - many that seem to be out of the control to the young people - and in the case of Bernie, I wanted to express a connection to those who might understand what this particular story is trying to say to readers. That if we try, we can survive anything! Most of my books, even my three fantasies, deal with loss, anxiety, and aiming at being an independent and strong young person  - despite difficult home lives. Growing up under various kinds of sadness and fear can be confusing and very hard at times.  I am happy that this book in some way helped you - I loved Bernie  - and I think she did a good job and so happy that it helped you all - even in a small way!  xo


Anonymous said...

Hello i just finished this book i thought it was awesome i wasn't really a reader tell i read you book.

Margaret Buffie said...

I'm glad you think "Out of Focus" was awesome, and to find out that you weren't a reader until you read my book is a great compliment. If you liked this one, you might like "Who is Frances Rain?" which is also set at a lake. I have 10 books altogether. There are so many great books out there to be enjoyed by other writers, too. I hope you keep reading. Thanks for writing!

Anonymous said...

thanks for replying and i will read your other books you are a great writer.

Anonymous said...

i loved your book out of focus! i always hated reading and your book just made me want to read more. i really hope you make a number 2 for out of focus. i was so upset on the way it ended. i would really like a part two or even a movie :) i loved your book.

(sent by email)

Margaret Buffie said...

Thanks for your email/post. I'm glad you loved Out of Focus. I'd like to see a movie made of it, too! But there won't be a second Out of Focus book any time soon. Maybe one day!