February 07, 2012

Charlie's Key

by Rob Mills
Orca Books
978-1-55469-872-1
254 pp.
Ages 12+
2011 

The cover art of Charlie's Key may suggest a dark and eerie, spine-tingling story but the suspense here is much more common and sadly relates to Plato's question: "Who will watch the watchmen?"

Charlie Sykes, 13, and his father, Michael, leave Fort McMurray, Alberta, for Newfoundland shortly after his father gets a troubling phone call.  A car accident with a moose (very common in Newfoundland) leaves Charlie an orphan but not before his father slips him an unfamiliar key.

Under the watchful eyes of the police, who seem to react to the Sykes name, Charlie is shunted from the hospital to "The Hollow", a juvenile facility, until a foster placement becomes available for him.  At the school, an older, nasty kid, nicknamed Flarehead, targets Charlie, physically abusing him whenever Frankie Walsh, another teen, isn't around to stand up for Charlie.  Frankie, a tough guy, takes an interest in Charlie upon learning his last name, and helps protect him in exchange for completing a reading proficiency test that Frankie repeatedly fails but needs to pass in order to be released from The Hollow. Another significant contact Charlie makes here is with Clare Dalton, a teen at the adjacent girls' rehab facility, who does some on-line research about the Sykes family.  Charlie learns of his uncle Nick, his father's brother, who has recently been released from prison where he'd been incarcerated for murder. His victim had been Brother Sullivan, one of the monks in charge of Cliffside, the orphanage at which Nick and Michael stayed after their parents' deaths in a fire.  A second murder in prison added more time to Nick's sentence.

When Frankie is released the same day that Charlie is to attend the memorial service for his father, he helps Charlie get away from the police (Sergeant Grimes, a.k.a. Tubby) and Child Services people (including his advocate, Dez) but not before Charlie meets his uncle.  Even when Frankie and his preppie friend, Gerald, take Charlie to a party at Clare's house (Clare, now out of rehab though still using Oxy (i.e., oxycodone), is a friend of Gerald's), Nick finds him and threatens him to get the key. But, it is only with several more encounters between Nick and Charlie, as well as other key characters, that the full story is revealed.

Rob Mills' writing seamlessly brings together the pathos of Charlie's situation with the coarseness of Frankie's and Nick's circumstances.  Their worlds, choked by alcoholism, intense anger and/or societal limitations may be difficult to comprehend for some, especially with the crude language used (particularly in references to women or to the abuse), but their realities are just that.  However, although Charlie's reality moves from one of naiveté and relative safety to one interconnected with Frankie and Nick, he is able to adjust well, applying his past to new experiences to help him make appropriate and ultimately self-sustaining decisions.  Beyond Rob Mills' strong characterizations is the suspenseful plot of Charlie's Key, which spends little time focusing on the mystery of the key itself but rather on the balance and merger of the past and the present.  The cliff hangers, beyond those of its setting, repeatedly lead the reader to anticipate but instead surprise, just the way a great thriller should.

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