Can they cover their tracks without uncovering the truth?
This one might get the honor of having the weirdest marriage between premise and tone: five minors in various states of having been orphaned or abandoned escape from their temporary group home. Each child, ranging in age from 5 to 18, has their own traumatic issues to manage, which manifest in conditions such as intermittent rage, extreme agoraphobia and social anxiety and the eating of inedibles (buttons, bobby pins, etc.). The twist? This is all played for MAXIMUM WACKINESS!
The Plot: Before the novel opens, 18 year old Arthur Beniker has made a name for himself as the syndicated advice columnist Dear Lola, which has enabled him to put away what seems to be a sizable nest egg. Although he has aged out of the foster care system, the nuns at St. Theresa’s group home find him likeable enough and allow him to stay on as a sort of handyman and kitchen helper.
But St. Theresa’s is only a temporary home for foster children, and a group of five oddballs have managed to bond because of the fact that they keep getting sent back from potential adoptive homes: 13 year old James, who won’t leave his room or interact with anyone; 9 year old Edmund, who gets naked and throws tantrums in public; 5 year old Ben, who is constantly eating anything that isn’t nailed down (including nails); and the narrator, 11 year old Annie and her twin brother Al-Willie, who… actually don’t seem to have any issues. Late one night some potential parents return Ben, and the kids, together at the home for the first time in months, jump into action and escape.
Walking right out the front door and out of town, Arthur/Lola purchases a used van and drives halfway across the country, gently goading his charges into studying subjects such as plumbing, auto repair and electrical engineering at the public libraries along the way. So they’re fully prepared to renovate a run-down farmhouse that Lola buys for cheap in the small town of Sweet River, Anystate USA.
Adopting the surname of Beniker and enrolling in the local public school (excepting James), they soon attract the notice of the meddling locals, so they claim to have an invalid grandfather that nobody is allowed to see.
Chronically unable to keep a low profile, the Benikers leave destruction in their wake and soon earn a visit from a PTA committee to check up on this mysterious grandfather, whom the Benikers are able to produce through James’s expertise in theatrical makeup. And they almost get away with it:
Most of the little group were out the door when Ben said “Uh, oh!” out loud and pointed right at Lola.
Mr. Ward and the Stamwicks turned back and there was Lola, once again quietly reading his newspaper, with his mustache-really looking like a gray caterpillar this time-slipping down his left cheek.
Summoned to family court, Lola pleads their case (he’s been heavily studying Family Law in his off-time):
“This is a ‘show cause’ order,” he said. “I went to get it this morning and it sure took a while. But it’s an order to show cause why I can’t keep the kids. We’re going to have a hearing. In court. And until we have it, the kids stay here.”
The judge is sympathetic, but still rules against him: when “Dear Lola” is revealed to be an 18 year old boy, his syndicate cancels the column, leaving him unemployed.
Always reliable for causing a scene, the Benikers escape in the ensuing chaos, again going on the run. The end of the novel finds them as migrant farm workers; James, always the brains behind “Dear Lola” anyway, is writing his own advice column, while Lola is preparing his memoirs for publication. The group also picks up an 11 year old hitchhiking runaway named Yolanda, and Annie is thrilled to have a sister at last!
GO ON THE ROAD! YOU’RE 11, YOU’LL BE FINE!
The book was made into a 1985 movie starring Andrew McCarthy as Lola, which my 10 year old self recalls as being the most glamorous depiction of Orphandom since the movie Annie.