Everyone at Missarthur School thought that Lenore James was a loony, and she encouraged them to think it- most of the time.
The (fairly good) pulp cover of this Weekly Reader paperback belies the content: although the YA Thriller plot is strictly standard, the first-person narration from the autistic heroine is something different.
The Plot: 14 year old Manhattanite Lenore James describes her mind as “a locked box from which nothing can escape”. She isn’t much bothered by her classmates (who dismiss her as “crazy” or “retarded”) or even her annoying, self-centered older brother, Jerome, Missathur School’s academic superstar. In fact, especially when it comes to her teachers, Lenore uses her condition to an advantage as shrewd observer of everything around her; she focuses on collecting “secrets” about her classmates and teachers.
Lenore rarely speaks, and when she does so it is to manipulate the adults around her to her own benefit- when her beloved psychiatrist announces that after a year of silent office visits that he “can’t reach her”, Lenore offers a few words of small talk, with the understanding that it will be chalked up as a breakthrough.
Lenore is seeing the “headshrinker” to deal with having witnessed her father’s death in a car accident as a child, but her mother understands that the trauma is separate from her “condition” and that she is always going to be “different”:
“So in other words, it’s normal for me to be a loony.” I giggled.
“For anyone to have a mental disturbance over something like that. Since you and your father were so close and since you are so sensitive, it was worse for you. But it will come right. I can see that you’re getting better.”
The plot is put in motion when Lenore overhears Miss Lisinsky, a young teacher, hatching a plot with a mysterious stranger. When she’s spotted Lenore successfully plays the “dummy”, but she becomes certain that they’re planning on kidnapping Sammy Loudan, a wealthy classmate.
After stealthily following her teacher and the mystery man after school for several days, Lenore’s more certain than ever that they’re up to no good, but when she tries to tell the adults in her life they don’t pay any attention.
She writes the whole thing up for her English teacher, who responds with some unhelpful literary criticism on her “short story”:
This doesn’t really have an ending. You should outline before you write, Lenore. Perhaps you would care to do more work on this story. And please, do not use the names of people you know.
Finally, she corners Sammy and informs him that he’s being followed, but he laughs it off: duh, his parents have hired a bodyguard to PREVENT kidnapping.
Lenore’s ready to write off all of her concerns when, on a visit to the local museum to view rare Edgar Allen Poe manuscripts, both she and Sammy ARE TOTALLY KIDNAPPED. By Miss Lisinsky and the body guard. Just like Lenore was trying to tell everyone. Adults are the worst.
Lenore and Sammy are imprisoned in the basement of an abandoned building, while the kidnappers attempt to ransom them, showing up every few days with some KFC to keep them alive.
Lenore and Sammy bond during the days they spend alone, as Lenore opens up about her father’s death, and Sammy discusses his over protective parents:
“Don’t you have any brothers or sisters?
“I had a brother.”
“What happened to him?
“He was kidnapped.”
I didn’t ask any more and Sammy didn’t tell me anymore.
Implied: TOTALLY MURDERED!
Finally, one day the kidnappers burst into the basement and shove a fistful of sleeping pills down Lenore and Sammy’s throats, forcing them to chase it with a jug of whiskey, before locking them up and leaving them for dead.
Aside: doesn’t this make the ransoming all for naught? Or did they get the money and decide to kill them anyway? UNCLEAR.
Luckily, Sammy’s parents made him constantly practice kidnapping drills (TOTALLY REASONABLE!) so he knows to swallow as few pills as he can. Once the kidnappers are out of sight, he gets Lenore to throw up and they take turns punching each other to stay awake.
When they hear someone returning to the basement, they prepare to fight their way out…
And then Lenore wakes up in the hospital, surrounded by her family, and even Jerome is managing to not be a total pill. Both she and Sammy will make a full recovery, and they all share a laugh about how they beat up the police officer that had come to rescue them. All of the adult s are very contrite about not listening to her warnings, and her psychiatrist gives her her favorite chair from his office.
Some months later her mother has remarried, and Lenore appreciates the fact her new step father isn’t trying to take the place of her dead father. She reports that she’s getting along with her classmates better, and no longer is obsessed with collecting “secrets”. Sammy’s body guard and Miss Lisinsky were arrested trying to flee the country, although whether they got the ransom is (frustratingly) never revealed.
Sign It Was Written in 1979 Department: “I think we’re in an area cleared for urban renewal,” I said, trying to keep the gloom out of my voice. “Probably most of the buildings are empty.”