Review: Lullabies for Little Criminals, by Heather O’Neill

Baby lives with her father, Jules, a heroin addict.  She doesn’t remember her mother:

He and my mother had both been fifteen when I was born. She had died a year later, so he’d been left to raise me all by himself. It didn’t make him any more mature than any other twenty-six-year-old, though.  He practically fell on the floor and died when a song he liked came on the radio. He was always telling people that he was color-blind because he thought it made him sound original. He also didn’t look too much like a parent … I thought of him as my best friend, as if we were almost the same age. (p. 4)

Jules tries to make a living and support his habit by peddling merchandise at flea markets.  To stay one step ahead of their landlord they seem to always be on the move.  Baby knows how to fit her entire life into a small suitcase.  Despite all these disadvantages, Baby is smart and does well in school.  She seems determined to overcome the odds, but her world is turned upside down when Jules goes into rehab, and Baby into the foster care system. Over the next year, Baby moves in and out of care, is placed into a remedial program at school, and gets sucked into the unhealthy lifestyle on the streets of Montreal.

Baby narrates her story with an authentic twelve-year-old’s voice, and really got on my nerves for the first half of the book.  But as her personal hardships intensified, so did my sympathy, and I found myself pulling for her.  She was often left on her own for days at a time, and had to grow up far too quickly.  I understood why she did what she did, but wished I could influence her choices (I’m avoiding spoilers here).

Such a realistic and gritty story should have been “unputdownable.”  It thought it was an interesting and unique book, but had no problem setting it aside.  It may have just been my mood this past week; I still recommend reading this Orange Prize nominee.

I read this book for Orange January.  Come join the fun!

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Review: Breaking Night, by Liz Murray

Talk about overcoming obstacles.  Liz Murray has done it.  Born to drug-addicted parents living in the Bronx, Liz was homeless at 15.  By that time she had already experienced life’s hard knocks in ways most of us could never imagine:  waiting up all night for her parents to come home from bars, watching them shoot up in the kitchen, having her belongings sold to buy drugs.  The family’s apartment was in poor condition to begin with, and her parents were unable to keep up with basic maintenance.  The bathtub drain was so backed up, the smell permeated the rest of the apartment.   By the time she turned 10, Liz was skipping school regularly, trying to earn her own money pumping gas or bagging groceries.

Liz’s mother left for another man, and Liz remained with her father.  When conditions forced him to move to a shelter, Liz entered the foster care system, living in a group home for a while.  She was then returned to her mother’s custody, but soon began skipping school again and eventually left home to live on her own.  She stayed the night with friends or slept on the subway.  She became involved in an unhealthy relationship, and stayed in it too long simply for the perceived security.  Shortly after her mother died from AIDS, Liz “hit bottom” and began working to get her own life together, attending an alternative high school and obtaining her degree in just two years.  She also obtained a prestigious New York Times scholarship that enabled her to pursue a university degree.

However, despite a compelling story, the writing was just average, and repetitive in parts.  Sometimes the emotions were raw and hit hard; at other times I failed to connect even when I felt I should.  Because it’s a true story, it was a difficult read.  I know there are thousands like Liz facing similarly extreme hardship, who will never be able to turn their lives around.  While Liz’s perseverance was amazing, what most impressed me was her ability to love, accept, and forgive those who wronged her.  There’s a lesson in that for all of us.