Laurie’s been keeping a secret for as long as she can remember, a secret that she’s afraid to tell anyone else…
Willo Davis Roberts was one of the more prolific writers toiling away in the YA/Middle Reader vineyards of the 1970s and 80s; best known for her thrillers (The View From the Cherry Tree, The Girl With Silver Eyes) she also wrote YA romances (3 titles in the Sunfire series) and social-problem books such as this one.
The Plot: Child abuse was on the public’s radar by the late 1970s: the book was published the same year as the TV movie Mary Jane Harper Cried Last Night first aired (and was subsequently turned into a best-selling novelization); while Roberts takes a less sensational approach to the subject, the epic denial of all of the adults in this story might be even more devastating.
11-year old Laurie Kolman arouses the suspicion only of the ER nurse upon her discharge, after receiving seven stitches in her hand:
“You’ve been in here rather a lot, lately, haven’t you Laurie?” The girl frowned more deeply, trying to remember. “You had a broken arm… or was it a collar bone? And then you were burned…”
Nobody would suspect that Laurie’s beautiful, petite mother, Annabelle, is the reason why Laurie has been spending so much time in the ER. Laurie knows that the family will be moving yet again now that suspicions have been aroused at the local hospital.
Annabelle is a nicely done portrait of a sociopath: not just a harried divorcee plagued by headaches that drive her to beat her only daughter, the mental and emotional torment she heaps on Laurie is even more disturbing. Remarried to a traveling electronics salesman who is often away, Annabelle undermines Laurie’s every attempt to make friends, deliberately keeps the family in isolated areas away from neighbors and even manages to subtly turn her new step-daughter against Laurie.
Sure enough, when her husband Jack arrives home from his latest business trip, Anabelle begins nagging to move, despite the fact it is only a month before the end of school, disguising her true motive with concern about Jack’s two young children having to walk to school. Soon enough, she has worn him down and within a week they have moved to a duplex “in the country”.
Laurie finds two bright spots in her new town. The first is that the “childless older couple” on the other half of the duplex actually have a son Laurie’s age, George Gerrold. The Gerrolds are renting the house to be closer to the hospital where George is receiving treatments for a degenerative bone diseases that has him on crutches; he and Laurie become fast friends.
The other is Laurie’s new music teacher, Miss Mullens, to whom Laurie finally decides to confide after Annabelle beats her for using her hair curlers.
But Miss Mullens is too busy to speak to Laurie right away, and the teacher fails to keep her appointment with Laurie at the end of the school day.
In fact, pretty much all of the adults are, at best, completely blind (and at worst willfully ignorant) of Laurie’s plight. Her stepfather regards her as “odd” and all of the authority figures she encounters (her teacher, the school nurse, and eventually a cop) all look the other way despite the fact she is bruised and bleeding.
The kids she encounters immediately know what’s up, however. From the nameless high school student that takes one look at her and offers that his old man beats him, too, to George and her step-brother Sam, the other kids are on to Annabelle, but feel helpless, and are sometimes disturbingly matter-of-fact about the whole thing. When George finds an injured stray puppy, he recruits Laurie to help him nurse it back to health:
“I don’t know if he’s got a broken leg or not, but he won’t stand on that back one,” George said. “I know you know something about broken bones. Maybe you can tell.”
“I don’t know for sure about his leg,” Laurie said. “I don’t feel any place where the bones are out of place. One time I had a broken wrist, and you could feel the lump where the bones came apart and one end sort of slid up and over the top of the other one.”
In fit of rage over a broken plate, Annabelle threatens to kill Laurie, and for the first time Laurie begins fantasizing that an accident might befall her mother:
She pretended that Annabelle was in a horrible accident… perhaps she fell down some stairs, as she had on several occasions claimed that Laurie had done… and that she was crippled in a wheelchair. And maybe she wouldn’t even be pretty any more, and Jack would decide that he didn’t want a wife who was scarred and couldn’t walk, and he’d leave her…
No, Laurie thought. No, that would leave Annabelle alone with Laurie, and she didn’t want that.
Like magic, within a few days Annabelle really is hit by a car and has to spend a week in the hospital. Overwhelmed with guilt that she somehow wished the accident into being, Laurie still admits that the week is “one of the best times she could remember.”
Even when Annabelle comes home, she seems subdued (and strung out on painkillers), but Laurie knows that another big blow-up is inevitable. It comes when Annabelle discovers that Laurie and George have been keeping the stray dog in the woods. Annabelle claims a deathly fear of dogs, and goes berserk, not only beating Laurie to unconsciousness with a fireplace poker, but also striking 8-year old Sam for the first time. When Sam finally manages to wake Laurie up, Annabelle and the dog are nowhere to be found, and Sam is very insistent upon them taking his sister and escaping to their grandmother’s house in another town.
They manage to navigate the bus system (the bus driver is yet another adult who notices that Laurie is literally covered in blood and opts not to investigate) and get all the way to the grandmother’s front yard before a police officer pulls up, informing them that Annabelle has reported them as runaways and he’s going to take them back.
Grandma is the one to stand up to the cop (GAWD, FINALLY!) and calls her son and informs them of what Sam and Laurie told her had happened. Which is great, but it would have been nice if Grandma had shared her concerns at literally any time leading up to this point.
Jack takes his wife to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation, and informs all three of the kids they’ll be staying with Grandma for the summer. Still, there are no guarantees about what future will hold:
“I didn’t know it was going on, Laurie,” he said now. “I’m… I’m sorry. Her own mother mistreated her very badly, Laurie, and somehow that’s why she’s the way she is. And maybe, when she gets that all out of her system, she won’t have to hurt you anymore.”
Actually, that is not very reassuring. At all.
She didn’t like books about kids and their problems with divorcing parents or alcoholic fathers or extreme poverty or troubles, troubles, troubles. She had enough problems of her own.