Uncle Ted claimed Jimmy bumped his head falling off the swing – but that’s not what really happened. The only person who knows the truth is Jimmy’s best friend, Carolyn. Hiding up a nearby tree, she saw everything.
Carolyn is the pint-sized protagonist of Toronto lawyer Nancy Hartry’s first novel, Watching Jimmy. At 11-going-on-12 in 1958, Carolyn becomes Jimmy’s caretaker and guardian after the incident with his uncle leaves him with brain damage, unable to communicate. When she’s not singing in a choir to earn money toward an operation for Jimmy, Carolyn practises a speech she’s been asked to deliver on Remembrance Day.
With strong character development and an engaging, well-oiled plot, Watching Jimmy is a suspenseful and provocative read, offering valuable observations on the travails of working-class, single-parent homes. Hartry explores the damage that secrets can wreak upon those who keep them, vividly portraying Carolyn’s descent into constant, claustrophobic anxiety as she guards Jimmy against further harm from Uncle Ted without telling anyone why. A turning point comes when she hears a sermon by hallowed Saskatchewan premier Tommy Douglas.
When Carolyn eventually delivers her speech at the war memorial, she veers from her intended script in more ways than one, slipping in a spirited call for socialized medicine. The attempt to draw sudden political consciousness from the strands of the narrative feels a bit forced and didactic. And right before the book ends, we learn just why Uncle Ted turned out so mean. Keeping some mystery about this would have made a strong story even stronger.