CM . . .
. Volume XII Number 20 . . . .June 9, 2006
Looking for JJ.
Toronto, ON: Scholastic Canada, 2005.
299 pp., pbk., $9.99.
Murder-Psychological aspects-Juvenile fiction.
Grades 9-12 / Ages 14-17.
Review by Joan Marshall.
She wasn't really listening, though. She had a sick feeling in her stomach, remembering the photos in the suitcase. Her mum, the model, smiling and laughing, wearing nothing but a school tie round her neck. He'd taken the pictures in her room and brought pretend things with him; books, rulers, a globe. He had been playing make-believe with her mum. The idea of grown-ups playing a child's game made her feel clammy and uncomfortable, and she pushed her duvet back so that her thin legs were there in front of her like straight lines down the bed.
Her mum was still talking. He'll pay you some money. And he might ask you to dress up for a bit. Just play-acting. You don't have to do anything you don't want to. Thing is it'll have to be a secret. Too young for modelling. Our business, no one else's.
She didn't like Mr. Cottis, his head was too shiny and his eyes were like steamed glass. He took pictures of other people and kept them himself in brown envelopes. It was a sort of theft. She didn't want him to steal her picture.
Why would a 10-year-old girl kill her best friend? And how should the justice system treat such a child? Carefully stepping through the minefield of guilt, revenge and anger that infuses child murders, Cassidy builds a convincing framework of abandonment and sadness against which the murder seems plausible but not excusable.
Moving from place to place in order to find modeling employment, often leaving Jennifer with her Gram or even alone, Jennifer's beautiful mother Carol finally seems to settle down in Berwick. Jennifer begins an almost normal life, enjoying school and the friendship of outgoing, bossy Michelle and her role of protector for quiet, mouse-like Lucy. Jennifer's world unravels slowly as she realizes that her mother is modeling for pornographic photos and may even be a prostitute. She and her two friends are determined to punish Lucy's two brutish older brothers for their rude remarks about Jennifer's mother by wrecking their den in the park near Berwick. Once there, however, they find incriminating photos of Carol, and, in an overwhelming rush of loss and anger, Jennifer hits Michelle with a baseball bat and, assuming that she is dead, covers her with branches before she returns home. Of course, Jenniferís actions are discovered, and the parents and police find Michelle dead, perhaps the victim of the feral cats that live in the park.
In Looking for JJ, Jennifer, now 17, and estranged from her greedy, grasping mother, has been released from prison to begin a new life. With the warm help of her social worker, Rosie, with whom she lives, and the efficient silence of her probation officer, Jill, Jennifer has a job at a coffee shop, a loving boyfriend, Frankie, and a plan to go to university in the fall. Known as Alice, she lives in terror of being found out as the newspapers rehash the story because of her supposed release, which actually happened six months earlier. Betrayed by a newshound and her own mother, Alice is forced to move again to another safe house. The story ends with her safe arrival at a university residence as Kate Rickman, where she has to give up all her former supports (Rosie, Frankie and herself as Alice) to begin again.
Jennifer/Alice/Kate is an entirely believable child and teenager. The story is told from her point of view so the reader sees Jennifer's pre-school adoration of her gorgeous mother, the child-like fear of abandonment and the resignation of learning to cope on her own, and finally the more adult understanding of her mother's total incompetence as a parent and a person. Gripping on to the determination that she can change and build a new life, Jennifer comes to the adult realization that she must leave even the most loving relationships (Rosie, Frankie and his family) in the past if she is to survive.
The secondary characters are also well drawn, from the tired, sleazy Carol to the grim Gram, the arrogant and bossy Michelle and the persistent, cheerful Rosie. It is to Cassidy's credit that the prison/social work people are portrayed as competent, firm, loving and determined that Jennifer will survive and succeed. The relationships among the girls are spot-on, detailing the mercurial, sand-shifting nature of best friends. Jennifer and Frankie's uneasiness over their sexual relationship will strike a chord with older teens who are faced with the same decisions.
Cassidy painstakingly builds the case for understanding that people can change, detailing the gradual abandonment of Jennifer, her relationships with Rosie and Frankie and her determination to make her new life as Alice work. Cassidy pointedly makes Jennifer's transformation work by creating a justice system that is supportive, even loving, thus eschewing the notion that revenge and retribution are necessary to rehabilitation. One wonders if the novel's theme is derived from the infamous case of two British boys who killed a toddler and were, years later, released to begin new lives under assumed names.
Taking place in present day urban England, the rich setting of this novel is full of British expressions (telly, jumper, biscuits, to grass on someone) the meaning of which are easily deciphered from the context.
Looking for JJ will appeal to older teens who are sophisticated enough to ponder the effects of child abuse and the ways in which society should treat the perpetrators of the worst crimes imaginable.
A former high school teacher-librarian, Joan Marshall is a bookseller in Winnipeg, MB.
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