CM . . .
. Volume XIX Number 26. . . .March 8, 2013
It's 1963, and 11-year-old Jules is already living on the edge. Her small home is cold, she rarely has enough to eat, and her father often stays away for days at a time. Jules has always been able to hold her life together because she has one person to cling to, even though he is abusive and neglectful. Her dad is her only family, and she needs him. But he doesn't need or want her, and as Christmas approaches, he disappears for a week. Jules' one friend, a Zellers employee, can tell something is wrong. Jules spills her story and is sent into foster care.
Jules' life continues to disintegrate. Her foster family is cold and uncaring, and her father stops showing up for visitation. Jules retreats inside herself, with no one to talk to. She's still able to see her best friend from school, but she has no confidante. Mrs Adamson, the Zellers employee, obviously cares deeply for the young girl, but Jules' father has forbidden her from seeing her again. And Jules' new teacher is a sadistic nun who beats her regularly. Finally she is saved from her deep loneliness when the Adamsons are able to become her foster family.
It is difficult to criticize this book because it is such a worthy topic and Jules is such a sad character, one we just want to be hugged and loved. But that isn't enough to sustain a narrative. Morrison took a chance by making the story so interior and flat, both emotionally and in terms of plot, and it doesn't totally work. There is a narrative drive here, as the reader can be fairly sure there will be some hope for Jules in the end and wants to see that happen. But it takes a long time to get there, and a lot of the scenes are repetitive.
The novel is quite manipulative, as trial upon trial is heaped upon Jules. The physical abuse at the hands of a nun seems a bit excessive and doesn’t do anything except make Jules even more of a silent victim. She is a strong girl, but the moral of the story seems to be that being a silent victim is sad but someone will come along to rescue you. The message would have been stronger if Jules was able to do more for herself than suffer in silence.
I also found the subject matter less than original. There are already a lot of children's novels about kids in just such a crisis. For example, The Saver is Edeet Ravel's story of a girl who pretends her mother is still alive in order maintain her independence. The protagonist had a much more interesting voice, and the angle was more intriguing and unusual. Because Jules is stuck in an unhappy rut, which doesn't change much for the majority of the book, there is little to develop in terms of plot or character. And almost every character in the novel is basically all good or all bad – there are no grey areas – which rather cheapens the depth of the story.
As worthy as elements of the story are, I cannot imagine a child wanting to read this novel, and I am not sure how much one would learn from reading it. I suppose it could be used as a way to talk about neglect and abuse, about the difficulties of being a foster child, and how difficult it is for neglected children to find a voice.
Other than perhaps being based on real events, there doesn't seem to be a good reason for this being set in the past. It isn't really a period piece although it does seem to be a believable depiction of the early 1960s in Canada. Jules is drawn to simple pleasures like ice skating and window shopping, and her routine is created in a convincing and subtle manner. The story also illustrates how most adults can be oblivious to what is happening inside a child's mind, especially at a time when children were particularly discouraged from talking about their needs or difficulties.
Recommended with reservations.
Kris Rothstein is a children's book agent and reviewer in Vancouver, BC.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.