This is a book I should have read ages ago and never got around to until a friend of mine insisted I drop everything else and read it THIS INSTANT. I started on the ferry, read in the car, and finished it before bed and am sorry I didn’t savour it more, now that it’s done.
Mommers is an all or nothing kind of woman. This makes life difficult for twelve year old Addie, who is forced to move into a tiny little trailer with her, away from her beloved half sisters and stepfather Dwight, when her mother’s marriage falls apart. But Addie refuses to wallow in what is by all accounts an unfortunate situation. She joins the stage orchestra, makes friends, and looks forward to visits from Dwight and the Littles (as she refers to her younger half sisters). But when her mother becomes involved in a suspicious business scheme with an even more suspicious partner named Pete, things go from okay to bad to worse. The last time Addie spoke up, her family was separated. Now that Dwight has moved in with Hannah, Mommers is all Addie has left. But is she enough?
There is a whole subcategory of contemporary American middle grade fiction about spunky heroines in lower income situations with at least one negligent/absent parent. Think Higher Power of Lucky, The Great Gilly Hopkins, How to Steal a Dog, Sunny Holiday. There are a number of similarities between these books, but my favourite is the strength of voice. Addie’s voice rings on every page. Sensitive but tough, lonely but optimistic, she is the very image of a plucky American heroine.* I especially enjoyed how author Leslie Connor handled Addie’s struggles with a learning disability, which was honest and funny and spot-on. Something about the tone and voice made me think of Walk Two Moons, which is about as perfect as a middle grade novel gets and is the highest of praise in my opinion.
There is a lot of love in this book, which mitigates Addie’s sometimes horrifying living situation. There are all sorts of gifts and gestures that demonstrate the presence of love in Addie’s life. Elliot and Soula at the local store look out for her, her Grandio stops by from time to time, and Dwight phones regularly. This is not a story about abandonment, though it could have been. It is clear that Addie’s mother loves her, but she is an unstable woman who makes bad choices, such as leaving her children at home alone with no food for days on end or chasing shady business opportunities. She exhibits other behaviour that hints at manic depression. Though I felt for Addie, I never truly worried about her because I knew how resourceful she was and that people had their eye on her and that eventually SOMETHING must happen.
Sometimes when bad situations are righted in children’s fiction it feels too clean and unbelievable, suffering from Happy Ever After syndrome. Connor manages to avoid this yet also creates a reunion scene so beautiful it brought a tear to my tired eye at 1am when I finished reading it. There are gritty bits, but ultimately this is a well-paced, warm read about a girl in a bad situation who sees her dream come true. It’s a great discussion book for literacy circles and book clubs.
Waiting for Normal is available now in paperback from Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins.
*Oh, pluck! Pluck in British children’s books tends to refer to a precocious child with a smart mouth. Pluck in American children’s books refers to unfailing optimism despite terrible circumstances.