Tuesday, October 28, 2008

National Book Award Finalist: What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell

A final-five nominee for the National Book Award for Young People, Judy Blundell's What I Saw And How I Lied, is a darkly realistic story in which a thicket of secrets at the heart of the lives of her mother and stepfather entangle the young main character like the mangrove swamps of south Florida where the story is set.

We first see Evie, a young fifteen-going-on-sixteen in those transitional days of 1947, a time in limbo between the war years and the booming fifties, as she and her best friend Margie practice smoking candy store chocolate cigarettes, talk uncertainly about boys and school soon to start, and walk homeward on a late summer afternoon, trying not to step on the cracks. Her stepfather has finally returned from the war and started a profitable appliance business, but their life in Queens, living in the house of her perpetually sour Grandma Gladys, goes on much as always. Evie worships her stylish mother Bev, the "dish of Queens" as her stepdad calls her, and desperately seeks the warm affection of her stepfather Joe.

But when Joe suddenly urges Bev and Evie to set off for an impromptu vacation in Palm Beach, Evie is thrown into much different world. At the La Mirage Hotel, they meet a fashionable wealthy couple, the Graysons, and a very attractive young man, Peter Coleridge, who turns out to be a wartime "buddy" of Joe's. Evie is immediately overwhelmed by a teen-aged crush on Peter which draws forth feelings she has never experienced. Twenty-three-year-old Peter appears to respond with some restrained romantic interest, but Evie's mother seems to insinuate herself into every possible moment with Peter.

And there's much more than a holiday triangle between a pretty young girl and her glamorous and experienced mother here. Joe and the Graysons quickly work out a deal to buy the La Mirage Hotel. Evie wonders where Joe's money is coming from until Peter confides to her how he and Joe looted a Nazi cache of confiscated Jewish gold and jewelry in the final days of the world. With this revelation, Evie begins to understand Joe's coolness toward his supposed old buddy and the growing conflict between Joe and her mother over Bev's suspected involvement with Peter.

Events move fast for Evie as her parents and Peter set out on a short fishing trip and Peter is supposedly lost overboard in a storm. With the revelation that no one--not Peter, the object of her youthful romantic fantasy, not her mother, who turns out to have been her probable rival for his attention, and not her stepfather, who has more than one reason to wish Peter dead--none of them is what she wanted or believed them to be, Evie sees that for her nothing will ever be the same. At the inquest over Peter's suspicious death, Evie realizes that everything depends upon her choice--and that the best choice may not be the right choice, but it must be the one with which she must live.

So here I was. I would live with Joe and Mom. I had no other place to go. Joe would carve the roast on Sundays. He would put up the Christmas tree. They would hand me the phone, pick up my socks, leave the porch light on. I would never know what happened on the boat that day, but they would be my parents. For the duration.

But while I would be their daughter, while I'd eat the roast and come home from dates and wash the dishes, I would also be myself. I would love my mother, but I would never want to be her again.... I would never tell another lie. I would be the truth teller, starting today. That would probably be tough.

But I would be tougher.

A coming-of-age story with a bit of a mystery and an unexpected ending embedded within it, What I Saw And How I Lied is a deep and complex story of a child thrown abruptly into an adult world which, unlike the sidewalk rhyme of childhood, operates under murky and constantly changing rules.



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