Two-time Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize winner Caroline Adderson is that rare bird: a writer who brings to the middle-grade novel the artistry and respect it deserves. These books are the exclusive province of children in that, on one hand, they do not require adult intermediaries to read them aloud, while on the other, they are in little danger of becoming crossover books or falling under too much scholarly scrutiny. These are the books that children choose for themselves and read in private, and they can be among the most influential books a reader ever experiences. To write them requires a particular skill set, one that Adderson exhibits in spades.
In Adderson’s latest effort, 12-year-old Curtis is responsible beyond his years, and a frequent caregiver to his kindergartener brother, Artie. When his single mother disappears (again), he goes into competent coping mode, figuring out how to manage food, school, and money, how to comfort Artie, and, most of all, how to keep their dilemma under wraps. Curtis has had stints in foster care, and he doesn’t ever want to repeat them or have Artie forced into a similar situation.
Mrs. Burt, the old lady across the street, is also laying low. Her daughter, whom she desribes as “Miss Big Shot in Toronto,” is trying to persuade her to sell her tiny house and move to an old-age home. A recent fall has compromised her independence, and the elderly woman quickly zeroes in on Curtis as a source of help, an arrangement that becomes symbiotic when she learns of the boys’ abandonment.
As the authorities move in on Curtis and Artie, the newly formed trio goes on the lam, escaping to Mrs. Burt’s abandoned family cabin. It is an idyllic time out of time. Mrs. Burt was a lumber camp cook in her youth, and the food is plentiful and delicious. There is the make-believe game of the Knights of the Round Toilet Seat (Mrs. Burt has been teaching the boys about Arthurian legend). There are logs to split, holes to dig, and a lake to swim in. Of course, despite the fun, the real world is still out there, and this interval of relief cannot last.
One of the glories of the middle-grade novel is its traditionalism, which plays variations on themes that have featured in stories for hundreds of years. Neglectful parents? The Secret Garden. Crusty senior who lets down her guard? Anne of Green Gables. Sibling loyalty? A Wrinkle in Time. Adderson takes such tropes and mines them anew, creating a world seen through a benignly absurdist point of view.
In fact, comedy is what holds sentimentality at bay here, and Adderson weaves comic details with flair. An old person’s walker is not intrinsically funny or moving, but in this novel Mrs. Burt’s walker, alternately referred to as “the thingie” or “the contraption,” becomes a character. When Artie first meets the thingie, he slides under the table and starts pinging it with his fingernail. Mrs. Burt hands him a teaspoon. “Different notes sounded on different rails and they both laughed.” When Mrs. Burt abandons the walker at the cabin, Artie adopts it, imagining it is a canoe or, draped with a blanket, “his own little cabin to live in with his china boy and girl [figurines].” And, in a perfect moment, Artie plays with the condiment rack in a diner, proclaiming, “[I]t’s a walker for jam!”
Adderson invests objects such as the walker, a grotty plastic bird named Happy, a pair of china figurines, and a baby tooth with emotion so that she doesn’t have to tell us what her characters are feeling. When Curtis was in foster care, he was terrified by a piece of string. This might be the most threatening piece of string in fiction, and it functions as a chilling evocation of a bully’s power to intimidate.
Another gift middle-grade fiction can offer is an unapologetic happy ending. There is a life-threatening crisis at the lake, but Curtis embraces the role of hero and all ends well. The use of a coma as a plot device is a bit of a stretch, but otherwise the conclusion of this buoyant and wise novel grows convincingly out of the characters, their strengths and vulnerabilities, and their particularity. If you are looking for proof that an ending in which harmony is restored and goodness affirmed can be as true and artful as the trendily bleak conclusions of much young adult fiction, this is it.