Harper Lee Morgan wants to win the poetry contest at her elementary school more than almost anything else. Although she is a gifted writer, she was unable to participate in the contest the previous year becuase her father, a fit of drunken sullenness, destroyed the permission slip. But that was only a few weeks before he left Harper, her little brother Hemingway, and their mother to fend for themselves. This year, Harper is confident, nothing can get in the way of her triumph at the poetry contest.
But then, only a few days before the contest, Harper comes home to find all of her family’s belongings spread out across the lawn. The landlord has kicked them out. The Morgans, somewhat shellshocked, go to stay in a nearby motel. But when Harper’s mother starts taking on every desperate job she can possibly find, the problem of what to do with Hemingway arises. She can’t take him to work with her, as she used to do. As much as she hates to do it, their mother asks Harper to stay home from school “just for a few days” to keep an eye on Hemingway. Harper is devastated, and meeting some other homeless children only begins to help her work through her uproar of emotions.
With millions of children facing homelessness in this country, I am surprised that there are not more books that address this issue. Harper does a nice job making it clear that the Morgan family’s problems are the result of a lot of different factors, not because the family is lazy or drug-users (though the absent Mr. Morgan’s alcohol abuse is frequently mentioned) or becuase it is somehow their fault. Mrs. Morgan is working around the clock to try to keep her children fed and cared for. It simply isn’t enough to do on her own, particularly when there are vaguely referenced debts to worry about. I liked that it appeared to be set in the suburbs. So many times when suburban children think “homeless” they picture crazy people wandering around in large cities. It’s important to see books like this, which highlight the many, many families that are doing everything in their power, but who just can’t make ends meet.
The characterization was quite strong for most of the characters. I particularly enjoyed Harper’s relationship with Winnie Rae Early, the landlord’s daughter. Winnie Rae is mean and occasionally cruel, and Harper has no problem hating her. But Winnie Rae has her own problems, and as much as Harper thinks that it would be “easier” to hate Winnie Rae, she’s forced to at least empathize with the other girl. That sort of complicated relationship can be hard to pull off, but I felt that the author did a nice job with it.
SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER The only aspect of this book where I think the author got a bit lazy was in the Dorothy aspect of the book. When Lorraine shows up and we are told that she hasn’t spoken since the fire that burned down her house, I was pretty sure that before the book was over some emergency would suddenly start her speaking again. It’s an accepted cliche of children’s literature, and made a certain amount of sense in the context of growth and trauma. But when an old lady who owns a house nearby, and who is friends with the children showed up, I groaned. I could see where this was heading, and I didn’t like it. The rest of the book was so realistic in its setting, so evocative of the day-to-day repercussions of being forced out of their home, that it is a crying shame that it all ended with a big happy bow provided by that tired old cliche of an older non-relative dying somewhat unexpectedly and leaving money/property to children who need it. Granted in this case it was not to Harper herself, but the net result was the same. How much stronger would this book have been if it had ended more realistically? The ending could still be happy if Harper’s mother were to get a steadier, more lucrative job, or there were some other solution that did not involve a major deus ex machina. END SPOILER
Despite my problems with the ending, the rest of the book was very strongly written, and I will be recommending it to my readers.