CM . . .
. Volume XIX Number 17. . . .January 4, 2013
Susan Chalker Browne’s first young adult novel takes place in St. John’s, NL, in the early Seventies. The main character, Maureen, is a 13-year-old whose life has suddenly changed dramatically. Her beloved Gran has just passed away, and this death has sent Maureen’s mother into a major depression which eventually has her admitted to a mental hospital. Maureen, with the support of her aunts, is left to try to care for her younger sister and look after her dad and life at home. In the meantime, “The Mental” is not a place that’s mentioned in public, and so Maureen feels the need to keep her mother’s illness a secret from friends and neighbours.
Maureen’s natural way of dealing with life is to find the funny side of things, and so she tries to put her home problems behind her in order to keep herself together and retain her reputation as one of the smartest and funniest girls at Fatima Academy. However, this technique tends to cover up the real issues Maureen is dealing with, and, as seen in the quote above, her efforts at amusing her peers can go over the line and end up being disrespectful and mean.
To complicate life even further, Maureen has been asked to the St. Matthew’s spring dance, one of only two grade eight girls to receive the coveted invitation. She has to get her dad’s permission first and then, naturally, is left with decisions about what to wear, how to behave and what on earth she can say or do to keep her date entertained.
Chalker Browne has created a multi-faceted, believable and sympathetic main character. Maureen is overwhelmed with personal issues, and her natural reaction is to continue as the class clown, putting her problems aside. When her mother has a pass to come home, Maureen is astounded at her own tears. She fears that her sadness will somehow exacerbate her mom’s depression, and she is also unaccustomed to showing her emotions so blatantly. Throughout the novel, Maureen’s grandmother reappears as Maureen remembers special times they shared, and this allows readers to again appreciate the softer and more emotional side of the main character, a side Maureen is quick to cover up at school among her peers and her teachers.
The novel takes readers to a specific place: a religious, all-girls’ school in Newfoundland, and a specific time: the 1970’s. The atmosphere of the school and the small city of St. John’s are captured through Maureen’s conversations with family and friends. Maureen and her family don’t really understand her mother’s depression and do their best to hide it from others. While I would like to think our reaction to mental illness has become more enlightened, I am not convinced. This is just one thread of the plot which would be interesting to discuss.
Chalker Browne surrounds Maureen with strong secondary characters. Her Aunt Kay does her best to fill in for Maureen’s mother and help Maureen with her new responsibilities. At school, teachers don’t necessarily like Maureen’s antics in class, but they are sympathetic and helpful when they realize the weight on her shoulders. Some of the girls surrounding Maureen help readers see her sarcastic and somewhat mean side, but friends like Debbie show both Maureen and readers that there are other aspects to Maureen’s personality which should be cultivated and which will, in the end, ensure her popularity. Maureen makes the transition during the novel from cocky and immature to a much more caring and open individual who is able to express herself and her emotions with far more confidence and courage. Chalker Browne doesn’t belabour this point, but, during a speech given by Maureen near the end of the novel, she says, “People say you learn from your mistakes, and I think that’s true. Well, it is for me anyhow.” (page 163) Her comment sums up this coming-of-age succinctly and honestly.
Susan Chalker Browne has won a variety of writing awards for her children’s books and, in this reviewer’s opinion, her first young adult novel is absolutely deserving of the same treatment. For so many reasons, The Secret Life of a Funny Girl is a memorable book which I am thrilled to have read and which I cannot recommend highly enough!
Ann Ketcheson, a retired teacher-librarian and teacher of high school English and French, lives in Ottawa, ON.
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