CM . . . .
Volume VII Number 7 . . . . December 1, 2000
Willow shut the door on the rest of Gram's speech. She looked down at Twig, still lying on the floor, with his arms over his face and his knees drawn up. She did not pat him or even try to speak, but simply sat down on the carpet next to him and waited.Willow Wind Jones has been abandoned by her drug-addicted mother, Angel, more times than she cares to remember, first with Gram, then with Jo and Lou, and finally with Maisie. At age 10, Willow is already old and wise. She is also the sole caregiver of her four-year old brother, Twig, an attention-deficit child, born an addict and also hearing impaired as the result of a beating. His lack of language, and the fact that he is given to tantrums, leads most people to believe he is retarded. Only Willow knows the truth and instinctively fights to protect him.
But when Maisie dies, the children's meager source of food and shelter is gone, and, since Angel is nowhere to be found, Willow knows she has to find help. She and Twig go to the police who, in turn, call Child and Family Services. When the topic of foster homes arises, Willow begins to worry that she and Twig will be separated, and, grasping at straws, she tells the authorities about Angel's mother who lives in Ontario. Gram agrees to take the children, and arrangements are made for them to fly from Vancouver to Toronto that same night.
Thus begins a new life for Willow and Twig, one so different from anything they've ever known, that it is almost frightening. Suddenly they are clean, fed, well dressed, and living in a big house in the country with three grown-ups, four dogs, and a cat. Aunt Con doesn't like Willow and Twig, but Gram and Uncle Hum do, and Willow quickly realizes that Aunt Con is in more danger of being evicted than she and Twig are. Willow becomes friends with the girl next door, and she goes to school for the first time in her life. Twig receives hearing aids and is registered in a school for the deaf.
Life is finally becoming good, except for the personal demons with which Willow must contend. She worries that Twig's unpredictable and uncontrollable wildness will bring their new world crashing down. She is hurt that her grandmother didn't protect her when she was Twig's age, and she is resentful that Gram makes decisions about Twig's welfare without consulting her. Having been the adult for so long, it is difficult for Willow to become a child again.
Willow and Twig is a touching story of two children who have had to endure problems no children should have to experience. Jean Little does a wonderful job of showing the special relationship between brother and sister. Willow and Twig are complete unto themselves, and their devotion to each other is an armor that protects them from the rest of the world.
For the most part, Willow is a credible character. She is bright and resourceful, though, considering her lack of formal education, her facility with adult language is sometimes suspect. For instance, when her grandmother tells her she has taken Twig to an audiologist, Willow knows exactly what Gram is talking about. Nevertheless, the reader is saddened to see an old head on shoulders much too young for the responsibility they've had to bear. Little uses the device of Red Mouse, a voice inside Willow's head to help her make adult decisions. As the situation improves, allowing Willow to resume her role as a child, she calls upon Red Mouse less and less often, and the voice, when she does hear it, is less distinctive, sounding like various grownups, instead of one. As for Twig, he is just plain delightful in spite of his wildness and provides a welcome light side to what might otherwise be a heavy read.
If the novel has a weakness, it is the convenience with which many of the events occur. Everything that was terrible suddenly becomes right, and the reader can't help wondering: if the cure was so easily obtainable, why did these children have to endure such hardships in the first place? Gram, who has had no contact with Willow in six years and who has never met Twig, takes the children in without hesitation. An uncle Willow didn't know she had materializes in the Vancouver police station to claim her and Twig, feed them, bathe them, and escort them to the airport. Though Willow has never been to school and the only tutoring she ever received was by correspondence before she was seven, she can not only read at grade level, but in fact, she can read better than most of her fifth grade classmates. Consequently, her adjustment to school is fast and smooth.
The other criticism that could be made is that the characters don't always react to situations realistically. When Aunt Con falls down the stairs and Willow calls the ambulance, the attendants whisk the old woman away, leaving the two children alone in the home, strange behavior for emergency professionals. Then, when Gram and Uncle Hum arrive and are told what has happened, they are not really concerned and make no immediate move to check on Aunt Con's condition.
The more sophisticated reader might find these fairytale qualities too good to be true, though younger readers generally welcome stories with happy endings, particularly those with difficult themes. Willow and Twig does a worthy job of exploring the unpleasant topic of child abuse in its various forms, and children should find it an enjoyable read.
Kristin Butcher lives in Victoria, BC, and writes for children.
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