Last summer I participated in MotherReader's 48 Hour Book Challenge, which was an awesome experience (can't wait to do it again!). Though I didn't get to read as much as I'd hoped to, what I read was fantastic stuff, and probably my favorite title was Sheila O'Connor's Sparrow Road, her debut in children's literature. The book was not only beautifully written, it featured a host of interesting characters, the kind of people you just want to know more about.
So when I saw that O'Connor had a new title for children out this fall, I was, to say the least, pretty jazzed. Of course there's always that worry that the next book won't be as good, that it will feel like a repeat or fall flat in one sense or another. But that worry didn't prove out with O'Connor's latest title, Keeping Safe the Stars, a family story that's as tender as it is compelling.
The novel opens with thirteen-year-old Pride, the oldest of the three Star children, trying to decide just what she's going to do about the family's current situation. The kids -- Pride, her sister Nightingale and their brother Baby -- have had a hard road in life, losing their parents already and now living with their somewhat reclusive grandfather Old Finn on his remote patch of land. Old Finn is wonderful for the Stars, teaching them all sorts of things that most kids never get to know and always remaining sensitive to their uniqueness. (His reclusiveness comes from his criticism of the government, particularly President Nixon who at the time of the novel is on the verge of resigning.)But now Old Finn has been stricken with a brain infection, taken to the hospital in Duluth, and the three Stars are left alone on the land, with only the ancient Miss Addie for supervision -- though truthfully, Miss Addie needs more supervision herself.
Pride's got to keep the family going, she knows that. And most importantly, she's got to keep the Social Services people away. Otherwise she, Nightingale and Baby will end up with fosters, and there's no guarantee that those fosters will be the sorts of people Old Finn is, or that the Stars can stay together if they have to leave. Still, how's a young girl, barely thirteen, supposed to look after her siblings and a senior citizen, not to mention find the money to keep everyone fed, all while hiding Old Finn's absence from outsiders?
This novel reminded me of Cynthia Voigt's Homecoming, and Pride of Voigt's heroine Dicey Tillerman. Like Dicey, Pride is stubborn and driven, determined to keep her family together no matter the cost. And like Dicey, Pride results to any means necessary to provide for the Stars and protect them from the frightening graveness of their situation. But Pride is her own person, and the Stars wholly individual as well. Though the resolution to their situation could strain the realms of believability, in O'Connor's skilled hands it comes off as natural, inevitable. And though there are certain stereotypes reinforced here -- parent-like older sibling, smart but quirky middle sibling, reckless baby of the family -- the Stars never feel like cut-outs of some more well-worn cloth.
Though the historical setting may be a stretch for some, I think this would be a hit with readers who favor independent, resourceful narrators. Pride isn't perfect, and therein lies her charm; while she makes mistakes, and knows even as she does some things that she's gone off the past, ultimately she's motivated by her huge heart and love for her entire family. As she did in Sparrow Road, O'Connor has once again created a novel that's driven by careful plotting and intriguing characters, the sort you hope to return to, if only to see how they all turn out.
Keeping Safe the Stars by Sheila O'Connor, published by G.P. Putnam's Sons
Sample: "Mama used to say I came to earth a doer. Nightingale a dreamer. Baby came to earth a darer -- it's why he tried to fly and why he had twelve stitches in his chin. / Still, different as the Stars were, all of us were part of the same heart -- Mama's heart -- and even gone, her love kept us a family. No matter what, we hardly ever fought. I didn't want to fight with Nightingale now."