Wednesday, December 4, 2013

December Book Review Club

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@Barrie Summy

Christmas is coming. Hanukkah is still here. And of course you know that books make perfect presents, whether in hardcover or stocking-stuffer paperback. A box of tissues would be a good companion gift for this one. 

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By Lynda Mullaly Hunt
Penguin/Nancy Paulsen Books, 2012

Yup, you’ll cry.

I’d heard that about ONE FOR THE MURPHYS, Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s 2012 middle-grade novel about a wounded kid and her foster family.

“Nah,” I thought. “There’s no cute doggie and nobody dies. What’s to cry about?”

But there I was two nights ago, sitting in my darkened bedroom at 11:30 p.m., teary-cheeked.

As usual, it was the main character who did me in.

Carley Connors, 12, is put into foster care after her dreadful stepfather beats her and then practically kills her mother, who ends up in intensive care. All Carley remembers about the beating is one horrifying moment: When her stepfather was after her, her mother grabbed her ankle and held on so he could catch her.

Up to now, Carley and her mother have been a team—they shared jokes, watched movies, played hooky, and stole their clothes from the Salvation Army bin. But Mom’s a good-time gal, and in most ways Carley’s been bringing herself up.

“After what my stepfather has done,” Carley tells us, “I’m terrified thinking about what kind of foster home I may land in. The things that could happen to me.”  To her surprise, she gets the Murphys, a picture-perfect American family. Dad’s a firefighter and Red Sox fan, Mom Julie stays home, the three boys fight sometimes but are basically good kids. Expecting the worst and handed the best, Carley finds it difficult to deal.

Determined to be prickly and uncooperative, Carley gradually is seduced by the wonders of a happy family. Julie Murphy especially bends over backwards to be what and where Carley needs her to be: buying her new clothes, making her lunch (with an encouraging note in it, no less), listening when required, backing off when necessary.

Carley does well in school. She acquires a best friend. She plays superheroes with the younger Murphy boys, and overcomes the older one’s misgivings. Despite her best efforts to the contrary, she’s almost happy. The only trouble is that this keeps feeling like someone else’s life, not hers.

Then her mother recovers and is exonerated in the beating. Will Carley return to her, or will she stay with the Murphys?

Carley’s a miracle of a character—you are with her from the first page, completely understanding why she keeps trying to undermine this best of all possible situations. Her relationship with Julie Murphy builds slowly, beautifully, believably.

Julie is a stealth character: the perfect mom, but not so perfect that you hate her or refuse to believe in her. You don’t realize how true she is until you look back on the book with wonder. Her wooing of her difficult foster child is heartfelt and real, as are her motivations.

Some reviewers have expressed mild concern about a possible message against non-traditional families, but this jaded old feminist didn’t worry about that. The story required a strong traditional family and that’s what we got.

If the book does have a minor flaw, it’s that there’s not enough of it. The Carley/Julie relationship gets enough ink to evolve naturally, but Carley’s bonds with her new best friend and with Julie’s husband and oldest son smoothed themselves out a tad quickly for my taste. That may be because I liked Carley so much I wanted to spend more time with her.

And it didn’t stop me from weeping like a baby at the end.

(Dear FCC: I’ve met Linda Mullaly Hunt a few times and I like her a lot. But I bought her book with my very own money and read it when I should have been reading six other things. Nobody said I had to write about it. )