CM . . .
. Volume XX Number 6. . . .October 11, 2013
Little Red Lies.
Toronto, ON: Tundra Books, 2013.
358 pp., hardcover & ebook, $21.99 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-77049-313-1 (hc.), ISBN 978-1-77049-314-8 (ebook).
Grades 7-10 / Ages 12-15.
Review by Ann Ketcheson.
Reviewed from Uncorrected Proof.
At last, it’s my turn. His khaki uniform is rough against my cheek and smells of sweat and grown-up boy and the world. He peels me away from him, finally, and says, “So how’s the old skinny-minny?” I hang on to his wrists, not ready to release him until I can give him full benefit of the debonair look I’ve been rehearsing. I stretch my Joan-Crawford lips, sling out my jaw, and bat my eyelashes for all I’m worth, but he just laughs. “Yikes!” He tries to shake free.
“Get her away! What’s that red stuff on your lips? War paint?”
“It’s called Little Red Lies.”
“Are you sure it isn’t called Big Red Lips?”
I let him go. How embarrassing! I’m such an overboard person!
No, I’m not.
I’m Pathetic with a capital P.
No. Magnificent. Capital M!
By the time I finish arguing with myself, Jamie and Dad are shaking hands and giving each other hearty pats on the back. Jamie keeps glancing at each of us in turn, looking a little dazed. “Instead of only three years, I feel as if I’ve been away for ten!”
Rachel is just 13-years-old, but she has a great deal on her mind. The war is over, and her older brother has just returned home and must somehow integrate back into the family, despite his health issues. Rachel is immersed in school, wanting to prove that she belongs in the school acting club and wanting to be adult, mature and pretty enough to encourage a romance with the handsome and apparently willing teacher who is directing the school play. At home, Rachel wonders why her mother seems so emotionally and physically changed and then finds out that her parents are dealing with an unexpected and unwanted pregnancy.
Julie Johnston’s writing has won many awards, and this novel is a further example of her talent. Readers are taken to the world of the late 1940s, the world of Woolworths and the Crowning Glory Beauty Salon, faith healers and their tent audiences and doctors who make house calls. Stars like Joan Crawford, Olivia de Havilland, Sammy Kaye and Sarah Vaughan are popular. Expressions such as “scuttlebutt” and “hubba-hubba” sprinkle conversations. While these details and references to the recent world war make the setting realistic and convincing, the plot is one which is universal and to which young adult readers of 2013 will easily relate.
Rachel, the main character, is a loveable and frustrating girl who will certainly win readers’ hearts. As the excerpt suggests, she can change instantly from an emotional high to an all-time low, and then back again in a heartbeat. Perhaps one of her most engaging qualities is her vivid imagination. Often she ponders just how things would turn out if she were writing a play or a novel, and she wishes that she had a similar control over her real world. She supports and admires her brother; yet, at the same time, she eavesdrops on his conversations and gives him little or no privacy. No doubt she loves her parents, but they exasperate her with their rules about not wearing bright red lipstick to school and their insistence on her ‘slave labour’ as she helps with various chores around the house. The novel begins just before Rachel’s 14th birthday, and readers travel with her past her 15th, so readers watch Rachel mature. Her lipstick is, appropriately, “Little Red Lies,” and Rachel is a master at little white lies which she uses to help herself cope with the complications around her, not understanding that this evasive method only makes things worse in the end. Rachel gradually learns how to deal with her ill older brother and her brand new infant brother, with the cycle of life at both beginning and end.
Johnston’s portrayal of Jamie, just home from the war, is empathetic and poignant without being melodramatic. Jamie must learn to adapt to a civilian lifestyle and to the fact that his best friend has not returned from combat. He learns to love, only to face rejection. He becomes enthused over beginning a new life as a university student, only to have his illness interfere. Throughout the novel, Jamie has difficulty expressing his innermost thoughts, but Johnston allows readers to see him through a series of letters which he wrote overseas but never mailed. Thus, readers understand him well while at the same time he is the restrained, somewhat remote soldier who returns home to a world which seems alien and unfamiliar.
At first glance, the number of themes in the book seems overwhelming: a traumatized soldier and his life-threatening illness, the crisis of an unexpected pregnancy, a teacher who tries to take advantage of his young female students, a small town where gossip is routine and often malicious, the coming-of-age of a teenage girl. Johnston takes all of these and skillfully weaves them into a story which has many laughs, many moments of tension and a great deal of human understanding. Young adult readers may have read previous Johnston novels and already be fans. If not, Little Red Lies is sure to make them want to read everything Johnston has produced so far and guarantees they will be ready and waiting for another novel.
Ann Ketcheson, a retired teacher-librarian and teacher of high school English and French, lives in Ottawa, ON.
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