The idea of being orphaned haunts children's literature, whether presented as fact or simply as a persistent fear. In fairy tales, a mother's death ushers in the evil stepmother, revealing that Dad by himself isn't an adequate bastion against the heartless world. In the modern-day fantasias of the Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket books, losing one's parents means entering a world of rapacious, comically grotesque relations whose attitudes toward the protagonist range from criminally negligent to murderous.
True, the term "orphan" sounds a bit antiquated these days. But the theme is easily updated. For decades, the more sober "problem" books have been getting mileage out of the plight of kids in foster care, with authors increasingly acknowledging that sometimes parents don't die -- they just leave. Two new young-adult novels by local authors plumb the depths of those fears that never go out of style.
Sand Dollar Summer is the first novel by Kimberly K. Jones of Monkton, who won Seven Days' Emerging Writers Contest in 1998. The book's narrator, 12-year-old Lise, doesn't actually lose her mother, but she confronts that possibility when Mom is broadsided by a driver running a red light. As for Dad, he's already out of the picture. When one of her mom's ER doctors asks Lise where her father is, she replies with deliberate vagueness, "He's not around." When he probes further, Lise wonders, "Why are people so obsessed with someone who doesn't matter?"
Single-parent families are a common theme in "problem" YA fiction, but we tend to hear more about their travails than their strengths. Not so here. Lise's dad took off shortly before her younger brother, Free, was born. She's in earnest when she says he doesn't matter -- there's no place for him in the family's "safe, snug triangle." Lise's mom is both breadwinner and defender of the family's honor, refusing to let well-meaning doctors keep Free out of school because he's 5 years old and hasn't spoken a word. Precocious Lise constantly quotes her mother, from whom she's inherited the conviction, "Sometimes you just have to do things for yourself."
The book is about Lise's discovery that her mother isn't "invincible," as she had thought, and the repercussions of that forced revelation. Recovering from multiple fractures, still unable to walk unaided, Lise's mother whisks the two kids off to the island in Maine where she grew up. There she stares listlessly at the ocean and reads and rereads Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift From the Sea, presumably contemplating her own mortality.
It's a common premise -- death, or a brush therewith, changes everything. Savvy readers know that the ocean, which terrifies Lise, represents that threat of oblivion, and they also know that by the last chapter Lise will have faced her fears. Her new friend, an aged Abenaki beach dweller named Ben, tells her that sand dollars that "go with the flow" are the ones that arrive safe and intact on the beach, giving the book's title a pat resonance. Meanwhile, Lise's mom reconnects with her old high school flame, now a doctor, and Lise learns -- surprise! -- that father figures aren't so useless after all.
All of this is predictable, but it's pleasant nonetheless. Jones doesn't condescend to her characters or her readers, and she doesn't soft-peddle issues such as why Lise's dad left. The book doesn't treat single parenthood as a problem to be fixed but as a circumstance with both upsides and downsides. It's clear that Lise's mother's dogmatic independence is shaping her daughter into a strong, smart woman -- but also into one who finds it difficult to admit weakness or accept help. By the end, the family has mellowed and learned to accept the kindness of outsiders, and it's a subtle, plausible transformation.
Certain elements in Sand Dollar Summer are less plausible, or at least more cliché -- the ethereal child prodigy who may be autistic or just "special"; the wise old Native American; the hair-raising climax set during a hurricane. In general, though, it's a restrained, elegantly written, true-to-life tale -- which means your average kid may be more likely to choose it for a book report than for beach reading. And she'll be glad she did.
Kat's Promise, by Plattsburgh author Bonnie Shimko, is told in a more dramatic vein. The first sentence starts things off with a bang: "Before I go to sleep at night in my aunt Paulina's house, I wish that God would strike her dead," the narrator opines.
What exactly did Aunt Paulina do to earn 12-year-old Kat's murderous hatred? To start with, she's guilty of trying to replace Kat's beloved, recently dead mother, in evil-stepmother fashion. But that's not all: It was Paulina, rich and vain, who "refused to part with a penny to pay the doctor and the hospital when Mama first discovered the lump in her breast." Since hospitals apparently aren't willing to extend charity to indigent patients in this novel's universe, Kat's mother dies, of a treatable cancer, in Kat's arms. It's all part of Aunt Paulina's "revenge" on her sister for stealing her handsome fiancé -- Kat's father -- from under her nose.
Transported to Aunt Paulina's mansion in a fictitious Vermont town, "poor orphan girl" Kat lives like a child out of Dickens, put upon but proud. When she refuses to play at being spinster Paulina's daughter, she's subjected to a pixie haircut and made to eat her supper with Nettie, the housekeeper, who's as poorly treated as she is. Naturally, meek, wan Nettie holds the key to a secret about Kat's past. Meanwhile, Kat befriends some colorful locals, including the autistic teenager next door.
If this plot set-up sounds as old as the hills -- minus the autistic kid -- it is. The gothic formulas that worked for 18th-century best-selling author Ann Radcliffe still work today. The mothers of girls reading Kat's Promise are more likely to be reminded of V.C. Andrews, the notorious author of Flowers in the Attic, which was favorite beach reading of teens in the 1980s. Andrews -- and the ghost writers who produced books under her name after she died -- got major mileage from the plight of orphaned or abandoned girls, tossing them into scenarios that involved such vicissitudes as incest, infanticide and seduction by older men. (Like Kat, the heroine of Flowers in the Attic is the daughter of a rich girl who was exiled from her family for taking up with the wrong man -- a plot point that doesn't seem quite at home in a modern setting.)
Andrews, with her lurid sex scenes, was hardly parent- or teacher-approved reading. Kat's Promise is more subdued as well as more substantial in terms of writing and characterization. When she's not bemoaning her losses or her idealized mother, Kat has a pleasantly tart voice. Shimko conveys her take on the world in supple, unflowery language, as when Kat describes the popular girls in school "looking me up and down as if they're checking for lice" and wondering "how they can whittle me down to a splinter with a few sugary questions like how come I don't have name-brand clothes and fashionable shoes?"
Kat's friend Beamer, a devout Catholic from a working-class family who acquires a precocious rep as the town "fast girl," is also well drawn. Comparing herself with her friend, Kat grasps the value of the gift her mother gave her by teaching her to respect herself: "When you are raised by a mother like mine, you know down deep in your soul that you are worth something."
Ultimately, though, the novel is limited by the rigidity of its own archetypes, which make it difficult for the characters to develop much beyond categories like "heroine" and "villainess." Instead of focusing on fleshing out the characters she has, Shimko throws in new villains and new perils for Kat to face. "I get edgy when things don't stay in the right box," Kat says, referring to the glimmers of humanity she sees in Aunt Paulina. It's a natural attitude and an astute observation for a preteen, but one only wishes the author didn't seem to feel the same way.
We've heard a lot about the tragedy of fatherless families -- particularly fatherless sons -- in recent years. But these books suggest that, for a daughter, the real catastrophe is an absent or malfunctioning mom. Fathers are presented as irrelevant at best -- Lise's is absent, and Kat's father was an abusive drunk whose death she can't bring herself to mourn. The protagonists unabashedly embrace idealized notions of their mothers as superwoman or suffering angel. When one parent's loss is virtually taken for granted, it puts a new spin on the age-old orphan theme.