October 03, 2015

My Life Before Me

by Norah McClintock
Orca Book Publishers
248 pp.
Ages 12+
September 29, 2015

Cady Andrews has dreamed of being a newspaper reporter and when her home, the Benevolent Home for Necessitous Girls, burns down, the story she is going to pursue is her own.  Just like the other six older girls–Toni, Sara, Betty, Tess, Malou and Dot–from the Home who must set out on their own, Cady is given clues to her identity or heritage.  Though she wants to reject it at first, hopeful of a new and exciting life, totally different than the pathetic one of twice-orphaned Cady Andrews, she takes that single clue–a yellowed newspaper clipping of a photo of the vandalized tombstone of Thomas Jefferson who died in 1948 in Orrenstown, Indiana–as the means to grab the attention of the Toronto newspaper editor who thinks the newspaper office is no place for young women.  

But it’s 1964 and it’s a time of the growing civil rights movement and a time of anger by those who can’t abide change.  Not surprising Cady’s questions in Orrenstown and then in Freemount where the grave is located draw a lot of attention. From the  three old men whom she meets at the diner, one of whom becomes her go-to person for local info, Sheriff Bradley Hicks who keeps popping up, a black youth named Daniel and his mother Lila Jefferson, and Maggie Nearing, who runs the local newspaper and the rooming house where Cady stays, Cady gets everyone gossipping and sometimes answering her questions.  Though she learns that Thomas Jefferson had been imprisoned for killing a white man and died while trying to escape, the story details seem to take on different perspectives depending on with whom she is speaking.  And his status as a war hero seemed to rub some people the wrong way.

What Thomas Jefferson, a black man, has to do with blond, blue-eyed Cady is not readily evident, but as with any crime story, a little bit of digging goes a long way to uncovering a few bones and ultimately some skeletons that many would have preferred left hidden.  In fact, some locals are threatened by Cady’s interest in the story as evident by threats she endures because of her enquiries.  Luckily she’s a determined and clever young woman and follows her single clue from one lead to another, meeting more and more people, and revealing an overwhelming racial discrimination and a story of murder, lies and corruption.  That clue may have been given to her to help find her family, but it’s probably more important in what she learns about herself.
But I promised myself that I would never commit the same sin.  I would never be afraid to do the right thing.  I didn’t want to go through life hating myself or regretting decisions. (pg. 242)
There’s a great reason that Norah McClintock is the queen of YA crime writing and I’m so impressed with the story she was able to create within the premise of the Secrets series and still accommodate a plot involving murder, mystery, and civil rights.  My Life Before Me demonstrates that our lives are more than the total of our own experiences; they are also shaped by experiences before our own births.  That single newspaper clipping clue about a man of no relation to Cady is able to open the doors to her past and her origin, though never obvious or confusing.  She will learn from whence she came, though her birth is neither a happy nor a horrific story.  But the story in which her birth is embedded is greater than her own, because it tells of a society that was hurtful and dishonest and prejudiced, and in 1964 still only starting to change for the better.  Moreover,  Norah McClintock easily places the reader in a different time–a time in which skin colour sadly mattered and justice was not always so.  And yet, readers will be impressed by Cady’s strength of character, regardless of the roadblocks constantly placed in her way, and the way she faced adversity with wisdom and poise.
Never spit into a well you may need to drink from. (pg. 7)
And even though much of the mystery regarding Thomas Jefferson skirts Cady’s own story, she makes it into a story that was important to tell and share, for a good greater than her own need.  I truly hope that Cady will continue to be given voice by  Norah McClintock as I think they both have lots more important ideas and stories to share, whether about being given to the orphanage for a second time or about the new life she makes for herself as a newspaper reporter.  Lots for more stories to be told, I’m sure.

Something special as part of the Secrets blog tour!

Read my interview with author Norah McClintock about her writing and her new book My Life Before Me in my next post today.


  1. Now I absolutely have to read this book, and this series!

  2. I know how fantastic "Seven" and the "Seven Sequels" were but I truly believe "Secrets" surpasses them. I have read 3 of the 7 "Secrets" and all are SO different. Love the time period selected and the stories each author has woven.