Versatile author Caroline Adderson astutely captures the range of emotions and perspectives of young adolescents as they awaken to a grown-up world in her latest effort for middle-grade readers. In A Simple Case of Angels, everything suddenly seems off-kilter to pragmatic, 11-year-old Nicola: the portrait of the Queen hangs crooked in her school hallway, icicles cling to the gutters at a slant, her formerly cheery teacher is unusually crabby.
Against the backdrop of this newly tilted world (“seismic activity” is one character’s explanation), Nicola has to save her loveable but misunderstood puppy, June Bug, from a trip to the SPCA, or worse (her brother Jared proclaims the dog is destined for hell). June Bug is running out of chances after yanking down the family Christmas tree and stealing the neighbours’ holiday turkey. In an effort to prove that the pup is worth keeping (and atone for her sins), Nicola takes June Bug to a local seniors’ home, where she hopes the dog will bring the residents some joy. After a few visits, Nicola and her dreamy, wedding-obsessed friend Lindsay (who accompanies her) start to see the unfair reality of growing old and also to believe there may be angels among the elderly residents.
Adderson plumbs the depths of young friendship with conviction as she handles some of life’s big questions. The adult world comes into focus as Nicola begins to question human goodness and the concept of hell. She gets various opinions on the latter – Jared believes everyone is destined for a fiery eternity, her mother says hell doesn’t exist, and her father gives her “The Comforting Talk About What Hell Really Is” – but none of these theories is entirely illuminating.
We’re given a solid cast of characters, but Lindsay, especially, is wonderfully quirky. She doesn’t care what the other kids think of her, and when she’s having a bad day she hides out in her “feel better box,” a cardboard refuge where she dreams of being a bride. The girls are mismatched and awkward but are brought together by the mysterious seniors.
Readers will appreciate the degree to which Adderson gets early adolescence right in this precocious coming-of-age story. However, despite a mystical big reveal late in the plot, the more fantastical elements are largely unconvincing.