When an author creates a character who is naive for their age, who has been sheltered from the world at large, and is unfamiliar with common idioms or pop-culture references, there’s a risk that character will become caricature. Heather Smith adroitly avoids this pitfall with the eponymous protagonist of her stellar second novel.
Bun O’Keefe has lived most of her life shuttered away in a desolate country house in Newfoundland with her hoarder mother. Bun hasn’t gone to school since her dad left when she was six, and her mom is a hugely flawed person – obese; obsessive in a quest for “treasure” that results in mountains of garbage and discarded items taking over their home; negligent to the point that Bun is left malnourished and filthy; and so disinterested in her child that when she tells Bun to get out one day, the 14-year-old assumes she really means it and actually leaves.
Smith wisely chooses to have Bun narrate her own story, making the thought processes behind her strange combination of jaded realism and innocence believable and understandable. It’s not that Bun is unintelligent, just that most of her knowledge comes from the old VHS tapes (the book is set in 1986), books, and magazines her mother lugs home in her wagon. The title is a reference to a documentary about a homeless alcoholic Bun has watched so many times she can quote it verbatim. Her worldview is skewed: she knows that the situation with her mother is very wrong and that bad things happen, but when she decides to hitchhike to St. John’s, she fears no one will pick her up because they might think she’s a serial killer (as she saw in a movie), rather than being concerned for her own safety.
Once in St. John’s, Bun encounters Busker Boy (all of the characters are assigned nicknames), an Indigenous youth who lives with a ragtag team of other kids in their late teens and early 20s in a rundown house owned by the Landlord, a man Bun is explicitly warned to stay away from. Readers might at first suspect that Busker Boy’s intentions toward the painfully naive Bun are anything but pure, but it quickly becomes clear that his possessiveness is born of a brotherly instinct to protect her. Likewise, the other characters who inhabit the house – Chef (a Mohawk-sporting dishwasher with culinary aspirations), Big Eyes (a former Catholic schoolgirl recovering from an abusive past), Cher/Chris (a drag queen and former med student who has a complicated relationship with his father) – take Bun into their fold and give her the nurturing and love she hasn’t experienced in almost a decade. It’s a different kind of family, but it turns out to be exactly what Bun needs to heal from what is slowly revealed to be a much more abusive situation than it initially appears.
This isn’t Smith’s first story about a girl dealing with family trauma. Her 2013 debut, Baygirl, was a well-balanced and nuanced portrayal of a 16-year-old and her alcoholic father. With The Agony of Bun O’Keefe, Smith builds on this strong foundation and improves upon her supporting characters. Each is given a full backstory and sparklingly clear personality, but their individual plotlines don’t impinge on the main story arc about Bun and Busker Boy. Rather, they come together seamlessly to form a cohesive larger narrative. It’s a testament to Smith’s strength in character development and attention to detail that even the minor characters – such as Busker Boy’s sometime love interest, Pop Girl – are fully formed and appear at the perfect moments throughout the story.
The Agony of Bun O’Keefe is about a girl who ultimately finds a home in the most unlikely of places, but also turns out to play a vital role for someone else. There are themes of forgiveness and healing balanced against realistic portrayals of the cruelties – large and small – people inflict on one another. There’s also an abundance of humour both subtle and overt, and a shattering of stereotypes and tropes around homeless kids, runaways, and Indigenous youth. This is a book that grabs readers by the heart and the head. You can’t help but care about the characters, wonder at your own circumstances, and reflect on the nature of kindness and love. This is a book that should be read not only by teens, but by adults who might need a reminder of what unironic innocence looks like.