This is one of those books that you love because the writing is phenomenal, not because of the content. In fact, this was a tough book to read and made me feel uncomfortable for wanting to know what will happen next. I truly enjoyed the skills of Heather O’Neill and I can see why Lullabies for Little Criminals is a Canadian must-read.
My thoughts about this book are a bit scattered. It provoked a lot of thought and a lot of questions. Also, self-examination. So, please forgive the jumpiness of this blog as I skip between ideas.
The scene that angered me the most was when she shows up at her boyfriend’s house. Her dad locked her out, she just got into a fight with a friend that she usually crashes over night with, and her only options are to be helped by Xavier’s parents, freeze outside, or return to her pimp. I was so angry and self-righteous when Xavier’s parents shut the door in her face. Couldn’t they see that she needed help? I have a friend who took in and basically adopted her son’s girlfriend because she needed support and family. Even after they broke up, by friend still supported her son’s ex-girlfriend. I also think of the TV show My So-Called Life, where the teacher takes in Ricki because no one else wants to go near him. Where is the risky compassion? Where is the sacrificial help? But then I think to myself, where is my risky compassion? Where is my sacrificial help? It’s easy to watch others and make judgement. It’s not so easy to actively help others.
Baby is an interesting character. She enjoys learning and tries hard at school. She often describes scenes where she is doing her homework in questionable situations and locations. At one point, she ends up in advanced classes and flourishes. Yet her living situation means that she doesn’t have a stable location to put her belongings, she doesn’t have consistent routines and activities, and she doesn’t have a reliable support network. As a teacher, this broke my heart. It’s so hard to see a student who is bright and eager to learn miss out on the challenge of learning because they can’t focus on the learning. baby has to look after her dad, navigate her neighbourhood, deal with the trauma of thinking drugs and prostitution are just a normal part of life. Heartbreaking. As a reader, I wanted to jump in and save Baby because O’Neill did such a brilliant job of narrating Baby’s character. The innocence of her situation and the ignorance of her plight makes her so lovable. She is trying her best in what she believes is a normal situation.
That being said, I couldn’t help but think that the ending was a bit too good, a bit too saviour-like. Baby and her father drive off into the sunset to live with her dad’s family in the country. If only every story of tragedy had this mysterious family help. I think of Jane Eyre whose long-lost uncle leaves her loads of money and she is set for life. I think of the girl from The Wonder who is whisked away into a new life with new parents. Yes, these characters deserve all good things, yet that’s not the reality for the majority of people in these situations. If you want proof, look at the stats. Over 30,000 Canadian young people were experiencing homelessness at some point last year. Over 30,000 young people. Teens. That number is disturbing and tragic. Not all of those stories end happily. Although to be fair, we don’t know the ending of Baby’s story but we leave with hope.
One thing I truly appreciated about O’Neill’s book is the transition she lets Baby witness. Baby notices a few time that since she started to look less like a kid, she was treated differently. Poor, homeless kid: aw, poor dear. Poor, homeless teen: get a job and grow up. I think that this is true and hard to hear: we judge teens as adults, when really they are still kids. This is one thing I have learned teaching jr high and high school: pre-teens and teens still need adult support, whether they see it that way or not. That’s the saddest part about the book for me, is Baby realizing that she is treated differently and is almost stuck. She hasn’t changed and her situation hasn’t changed, but the perception and judgements of others have. This is why I think that O’Neill’s book is so well written: she taps into something that we know about ourselves, and even though we may not have had similar experiences to Baby, we have all had similar moments of clarity and sadness for the passing of our own childhoods.
So overall, I truly loved this book. It got me thinking and it got me feeling. In the end, that’s why we love reading, isn’t it?