Thursday, November 27, 2008

Just a Number: Eleven by Patricia Reilly Giff

It's the night before his eleventh birthday, and Sam McKenzie has searched all the usual places to find where his gifts are hidden. At last he climbs out onto the roof and into the attic above his grandfather Mack's bedroom, and in an intriguing metal box finds a newspaper photo of himself.

Almost a non-reader, Sam sounds out the headline--MISSING and below the photo of a toddler, the name--SAM BELL. Sam knows that he is that little boy; he remembers the sweater the boy is wearing, and with that memory come a flood of other scary memories--a dark house with the number 11, unhappy children, an angry woman, loud shouting, his cat cringing under the table, and someone pulling him from icy water and bringing him here, to the place where he and his grandfather live above the woodworking shop.

Sam is overwhelmed with fear--fear that Mack may not be his grandfather and that the stories he has heard of his parents may not be true. But Sam has the same intuitive skill with wood that Mack has and he still has Night Cat--the same cat--from his memory of that terrifying night. Sam has to find out who he really is, but to investigate the contents of that box he needs a friend, a friend who can read and who will keep his secret.

When a freewheeling new girl joins his class, Sam knows he has found someone who can help him solve the mystery of his own identity. Luckily, Sam and Caroline are assigned to work as partners on a castle model for their class's medieval unit, and while Caroline is visiting, the two snatch an opportunity to slip the contents of the metal box out of the attic. Caroline reads the whole newspaper clipping, and they now know the place where the haunting images originated.

Just as Caroline finds out that her family will be moving again, Sam and Caroline visit the small nearby town where Sam was placed in a Children's Home. They find the house, number 11, on Eleventh Street, closed and rundown, but seeing the place in the light of reality, Sam is able to face his fears and finally ask his grandfather for the true story behind the memories which have haunted him.

Patricia Reilly Giff's Eleven tells an affecting story of a remarkable but dyslexic boy in an unconventional but supportive family formed by his grandfather and his old friends Onji and Anima, all loving Sam but concealing the family secret which has kept him from feeling whole. When Caroline helps Sam to ask the right questions, Mack's truth-telling gives him back his identity and his confidence, and we know Sam's going be be all right.

Giff begins each chapter with a short blank-verse poem. Here is how she ends her story:

So Eleven.

It could be anything.
A street, a house number, a pair of chimneys that didn't
frighten him anymore
His eleventh birthday.
The year he met his best friend.
It might even be the double masts on the boat
he'd sail every summer on the St. Lawrence,
with all of them, Mack, Onji, Anima, and Caroline
It was the year he began to read.

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