March 04, 2013

Shadow Girl

by Patricia Morrison
Tundra Books
217 pp.
Ages 9-13

A recurring theme in many books I've read in the past year and a half has been the abandonment of children, whether by choice, by accident, or by misfortune.  There was Fostergirls by Liane Shaw (Second Story Press, 2011); The Tiffin by Mahtab Narsimhan (Dancing Cat Books, 2011);  No Ordinary Day by Deborah Ellis (Groundwood Books, 2011); Middle of Nowhere by Caroline Adderson (Groundwood Books, 2012); I'll Be Home Soon by Luanne Armstrong (Ronsdale, 2012); and  A Tinfoil Sky by Cyndi Sand-Eveland (Tundra, 2012). Yet as predominant as this theme may be, each of these books, as does Shadow Girl by Patricia Morrison, takes a unique perspective on being without one's parents.

In December of 1963, Jules is only eleven years old but has become very self-sufficient living without a mom (who left when she was 4) and with a dad who has a serious drinking problem.  Though Jules will not acknowledge that her dad is an alcoholic until much later in the book, she believes that she knows how to keep things relaxed so he won't drink and what to expect when he does.  She makes most of her meals herself (when there's food in the house) and tries to keep things clean and tidy to prevent her dad from getting angry because he is a mean drunk.  But, calling her a "bloody stinking leech" (pg. 30) for being hungry and asking for more food isn't half as bad as him throwing food and dishes and pulling out the phone or staying away overnight.  Luckily Jules finds refuge in her bedroom where she likes to make blanket forts that help her feel secure.  And she loves to visit the local Zeller's toy department where she sits and reads or plays and now knows the two employees, Mrs. Adamson and Francis.  

But when dad doesn't come home for days, and she's left alone to fend for herself, Jules vacillates between anger and frustration aimed at anyone or anything ("I hate you, house, as much as you hate me! Stupid walls.  Stupid brown carpet.  Smelly, old kitchen.  I hate you!"; pg. 58), guilt and making resolutions (e.g., "Oh, dad, I'm sorry.  I won't do it again.  I won't ask for anything.  I'll leave you alone.  Just come back.  Please!"; pg. 59) to disqualifying herself, feeling worthless, non-existent, or crazy (e.g., "How can a stranger be like this to me? To Jules, the stinking weirdo?"; pg. 66)  But even with Jules trying to hide her dad's absence, Mrs. Adamson picks up on her sadness and learns some of the story, calling in the Catholic Children's Aid.

So, just days before Christmas, Jules enters temporary foster care while the Catholic Children's Aid attempts to find her father.  When he contacts them, Jules finds herself facing even greater challenges, negotiating between the inequitable treatment at her foster family's house, and her dad and his uncertain role in her life.

While there are some moments of surprising delight for Jules, her story is not a happy one, but it certainly is not a unique one.  She is a child who has had to grow up too fast and become responsible for herself, albeit without the maturity and financial support needed to be successful.  While everyone purports to want to help her, most of them have placed some limitations on that help, whether it be because of constraints dealing with time, money, or emotional engagement.  For all she has endured, Jules is still a young girl who must imagine happiness and unconditional love but even that is becoming more and more difficult.
How am I going to get through all the years of being a kid and getting pushed around?  How am I going to make it?  (pg. 182)
Patricia Morrison is able to get inside Jules' head and provide her with the confusing thoughts of a child in turmoil and at risk.  Jules' self-talk shows her confusion in finding the right voice that would keep her safe and worthy of love.  She's a multiple personality (probably like most of us), trying to decide which one personality will be the most successful: the brash girl who willingly skips school and hangs out at Zeller's; the girl who hides in her blanket fort and lacks the substance to be more than a shadow; or just a young girl who can enjoy childish pursuits, like skating and playing with dolls, as well as accept the affection of others.  As I said, Jules' story in Shadow Girl does not necessarily end on a happy note, but Patricia Morrison does allow Jules to come out from her vague Shadow Girl status and gather the substance and texture to become a daughter, a sister and a friend, and completely real.

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