CM . . .
. Volume VIII Number 11 . . . . February 1, 2002
believes with the fervor that only the born-again can have. Theirs is
family of three: Helen, the oldest at age 22, is a surrogate mother
to 14-year-old Aggie and 17- year-old Jeannie, "really beautiful.
Good figure. Bleach-blonde hair, and plenty of it." (P. 20) Unlike
her fashionista younger sisters (Jeannie looks good in whatever outfit
is current and fashionably outrageous, while Aggie favors vintage togs),
the highly-responsible Helen wears black, all the time. Comments Aggie,
"she'd make a good nun." (P. 20) Their father, a petty criminal,
has been dead for a while, their mother, who struggles with mental health
problems, disappears for extended periods of time, leaving the three
of them to live above and work in a deli to support themselves.
So, when they receive a letter informing them that Bertrand Quade, their grandfather, one of the richest men in Canada, has made them heiresses, they move from Sudbury to Port Desire, to take possession of their legacy. But, there's a catch: Grandfather Quade has bequeathed them the family home - and little else - on the condition that their Great-Aunt Lillian comes to live under the same roof as they, so that the family, such as it is, is reunited. These three girls fight and scrap as much as any three female siblings can, and Great-Aunt Lillian is a notable eccentric, currently living in on an island in semi-isolation. Clearly, this is not a re-make of Little Women (a book which Aggie absolutely loves).
Sounds crazy? In fact, In Spite of Killer Bees is totally believable. Johnston tells the story of how a dysfunctional family becomes functional, and she does it with wit and humour, something often lacking and much appreciated in a book for young adult readers. Yes, the girls' mother does re-appear, but, after causing her daughters no end of difficulty, she runs away again. Still, at the end of the book, the heiresses of Port Desire believe that "our heart's desire is within our reach, almost, if we stretch a little farther, and hope a little longer. And we do." (P. 253)
I really enjoyed In Spite of Killer Bees, and I'm looking forward to Johnston's next book. In the meantime, I'm hoping that it will be released in paperback - young adult readers prefer that format, but once you get this book into their backpacks, I am positive that they'll love it, hard-cover notwithstanding.
Peters is a teacher-librarian at Kelvin High School in Winnipeg, MB.
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