Is Laura’s talent for seeing into the future a gift or a curse?
Like her contemporary, Lois Duncan, Ellen Conford takes a rather casual attitude towards teenagers with psychic powers. Instead of focusing on suspense, however, Conford largely focuses on the humorous potential of suddenly realizing that you are a middle-schooler with The Gift.
The Plot: Thirteen year old Laura Hoffman is an ordinary teenager in an extraordinary family: her older brother is a prodigious jazz composer and captain of the high school debate team; her older sister an actress and bowling champion (!); her 7-year old brother is a whiz at memorization (mostly TV commercials) and is undertaking a personal mission to count all the way to one million. Her parents are no slouches, either: Mrs. Hoffman is a former B-movie actress who has found success as a writer of pulp paperbacks (Gothic romances as Fiona Westphall, and westerns as Luke Mantee); her father is such a scientific genius that a company pays him to sit in a laboratory all day and think up new ideas.
As the book opens, Laura is a trifle uneasy about starting Junior High and uncertain about trying to follow in her sister Jill’s footsteps by auditioning for the school play.
However, she is quickly befriended by Beth, another aspiring actress, and is soon spending afternoons with Beth and her glamorously normal family. Mrs. Traub is a lawyer:
She was very pretty, younger than my mother and a lot more dignified looking. She had on this cream-colored pantsuit with a brown and beige striped sweater. My mother, who could be absolutely stunning if she felt like it, is about as clothes-conscious as my father.
She has even been known to rush out for a carton of milk in the winter with a twenty-year-old mink coat draped over her sweat shirt and jeans.
Beth’s father is similarly young and good-looking, and her younger brother, Roger, is also reassuringly normal.
I could very easily get used to living surrounded by quiet elegance, I thought. It was a comfortable feeling.
Laura is apprehensive about having Beth over to meet “the mob” at her house, but when she finally does things go smoothly until the family sits down to dinner and Laura suddenly has an odd spell, suddenly having a vision of her father in his laboratory, solving a tricky problem he had been working on for weeks.
When Laura learns the next day that her vision has come true, Beth urges her to try to see into her future, but the “quiet elegance” of Beth’s home proves to not be conducive to psychic visions. Beth suggests adding some chaos, ordering Roger to turn up the volume on the TV while she plays her flute:
It was awful. Absolutely hideous. It was even worse than being in my own house. The flute shrieked and squealed. A cartoon character screamed lisping threats to his archenemy while in the background someone operated a whining buzzsaw accompanied by howls of shrill, cackling laughter.
I pressed my fingers against my temples and closed my eyes. It was too much, too much, this would never work, I couldn’t-
But Laura suddenly does see a vision of Beth as the star of the school play.
As Laura practices the visions come more easily to her, and not all of them are so benign. She is especially frightened by one in which she sees her mother dressed as a little girl, throwing a temper tantrum over a missing doll.
Her fears are mitigated by the fact that Beth only gets a supporting role in the school play: her visions only have about a 50% return rate.
However, word has gotten around school that they have a resident psychic, and in a realistically mercenary move, her friend Jamie puts her into business, complete with disclaimers about her visions not being guaranteed and charging a suggested donation “so we don’t get sued”.
Her family is not impressed, since having “300 screaming kids” at the front door demanding to know their futures is distracting them from practicing their talents. Also, the father of a classmate turns out to be a police officer, and despite the disclaimers, gently shuts down the operation.
Laura becomes concerned about her family again when the leading lady in the school play is injured in a car accident (which she had foreseen) and Beth is bumped up to the lead after all. She becomes more and more convinced that the missing doll represents her younger brother and something terrible is going to happen to him.
And one day when her mother is locked in her office, pondering if a dagger or a stiletto is a more gothic murder instrument, Dennis does disappear, but it is hardly a huge mystery or tragic ordeal. Laura is able to use her “visions” to help locate him, even if the investigating officer remains skeptical that it’s anything other than playing a good hunch (TV-crazy Dennis wandered out to the local shopping center and made himself cozy in front of a jumbo set in the appliance department).
Laura pleads with her family to accept her Gift as proof that she too has an impressive talent, but what do you know, they loved her for herself all along!
Finally, Laura tries to conjure a vision of her own future, but all she can summon is a playbill reading “ACT III: TO BE CONTINUED.”
The psychic plot is almost unnecessary, since Conford’s writing is so good: the humorous observations of Junior High life and conflict amongst a family of eccentrics is what is going to keep the reader interested.
Sign It Was Written In 1977 Department:
“Jamie!” I shrieked. I was exhausted trying to keep up with all those big plans she had for me. “I don’t want to be on the Johnny Carson show!”
“Okay.” She shrugged. “Mike Douglas, then.”