July 29, 2012

I'll Be Home Soon

by Luanne Armstrong
Ronsdale Press
200 pp.
Ages 10+
Available September, 2012

Gritty girls have become the new heroes of popular fiction and movies, ready to take on any foe, physically, strategically or emotionally.  Though their challenges may be contrived in the lines of speculative fiction filled with vampires, game-makers, werewolves, and other contenders, these protagonists compel the readers to cheer for them, regardless of the horrific circumstances, countless deaths and violent outcomes.  But, these heroes have nothing on thirteen-year-old Regan of Luanne Armstrong's I'll Be Home Soon.

Regan's less-than-comfortable life has become even grittier since the disappearance of her mother, Joanie Anderson, who goes out on an evening job to make a few extra dollars and does not return.  For the first few weeks, Regan uses the money her mother left for food and continues going to school and even her kung fu classes, though unable to pay.  But things get more desperate when she's scrounging for food out of garbage bins, when there's no money for laundry and when she spends most of her time watching for her mom, staying under the radar of her teachers, the local street youth worker and the police.  While she finds solace in the discipline of kung fu at the dojo and the caring of the kung fu master, Sifu, Regan's sole friend is Mike, a sixteen-year-old homeless busker, who encourages her to go to the police, still keeping her updated on anything that he hears on the street.

Though Mike seems a casual acquaintance, someone who Regan seeks out when she needs help, he becomes instrumental in helping track her mother, as well as keep Regan safe.  After visiting Clayton, the man whose poker party Regan's mom worked, Regan unwisely checks out the player, George Miller, with whom her mother has apparently gone off.  But, George Miller is less than gracious, alleging that Regan's mom stole money from him, and tries to grab Regan, even sending men to pursue her.   After brief stays at the tent city of Ramona and other homeless people, at a group home, and at the home of a grandmother she hadn't seen for years,  Regan is being threatened by George and his goons to reveal where her mother, who has apparently stolen millions, is hiding.

While there is no evidence of a romance between Regan and Mike, they seem to be forging a strong bond founded in their mutual admiration for the resilience and caring each demonstrates.  He shares his squat, sleeping bag and family history with her, even putting himself in danger, although he claims, "I'm good at staying uninvolved" (pg. 98) because becoming part of a "we" causes hurt.  Thankfully, Mike's repeated efforts to discover more about Regan's mother, plus the attentions of Sifu, Reg McDermid, a researcher on street youth, and a female cop, help resolve the mystery of Regan's mom's disappearance and reestablish Regan's and her mom's lives, even improving upon them.

Regan is not a character, because Luanne Armstrong has not written I'll Be Home Soon as a piece of fiction; it reads like a retelling of a few months in a young girl's life.  Regan is a young girl who, by nature of unprecedented circumstances, must make some hard choices that test her fortitude and survival skills, including knowing who to trust and not to trust.  Luanne Armstrong does an incredible job of leading the reader from subplot to subplot, looking for resolution, never setting up simple answers, whether it be the rescue of Regan's mom or a perfect happy ending for Mike and Regan.  For example, Luanne Armstrong could have wrapped up I'll Be Home Soon with all the homeless becoming homed, bad guys caught and jailed, and every less-than-sympathetic person redeeming themselves.  She does not.  What she does do is far more satisfying, demonstrating that coming home may be everyone's aspiration but where that home is or the nature of that home is not always so easily defined or even recognized.

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