Thursday, June 04, 2009
If The Witness Lied
If the Witness Lied by Caroline B. Cooney. Delacorte Press. 2009. Copy supplied by publisher.
The Plot: First, their mother dies. Then, their father. The four Fountain children are left alone, except for their Aunt Cheryl. Overwhelmed by grief -- by how and why their parents died -- the family cannot hold itself together.
Their mother was diagnosed with cancer while pregnant with Tris, now almost three. She choose to have her child rather than have an abortion and aggressively treat the cancer; the press had a field day, as did protesters who called her choice suicide and criticized her abandoning the children she did have. Toddler Tris then kills his father. The little boy releases the emergency break on his father's jeep; and the jeep runs over and kills his father. The press once again and return to the house.
Maddy, the oldest and now a senior, fled to stay with family friends. Smithy found a boarding school and escaped that way. Jack, fifteen, was left behind to take care of Tris. To protect the child. But can he keep protecting Tris, when Cheryl decides to turn the little boy's life into a TV reality show? The baby who killed his parents. What can Jack do?
If the Witness Lied takes place in less than 24 hours, on a Friday, the day after their their father's birthday. Or, as Jack thinks, "it was just another day. Dead people don't have birthdays." Jack muses, "around him, hundreds of kids are buying lunch, skipping lunch or finding lunch or finding lunch partners. His goal is to be normal, although the Fountain family stopped being normal a long time ago."
Told in the present tense, If the Witness Lied is unbearably suspenseful as the Fountain children realize the truth about their family. At first, it is Jack's story, the good child who has not only stayed home with his younger brother (the brother his older and younger sister cannot even bear to live with), but also given up everything -- friends, football, baseball -- to become his brother's primary caretaker. "Usually a two-year-old has parents to protect him, but Tris is not that lucky. He has only his big brother and his babysitter."
But then the point of view shifts, to also include Madison and Smithy. The two who ran away; who are now compelled, by guilt from ignoring their father's birthday, by a pull of family ties, to come home. Just at the worst -- or best -- time. When Aunt Cheryl has decided to invite in TV cameras.
While on the surface an attack on reality TV and those who see themselves as only existing via television, this is actually a heartbreaking look at grief and the destruction of a family. Three years ago, the Fountains were a family: two parents, three children. Then, suddenly, one parent, four children. Then no parents. Loss upon loss; and it's not only the children who cannot handle it. The adults, who should be protecting the Fountain children, the grandparents and godparents, and even their own parents, constantly fail these teenagers and baby. And, for the most part, it's because they are all wrapped up in their own grieving. Reed Fountain loses his wife, so does not realize that Aunt Cheryl cares more about the house than the children. When Reed dies, his friends and parents are so destroyed they don't know what to do.
And if the adults don't know, how can the children?
The intensity of the book -- the deaths, the risks to Tris, the grief and loss, the slow realization that there is more to the father's death than they knew -- could be overwhelming if it wasn't being told in such a short time period. It takes time for people to heal; and to realize certain things. By having this book told in just one day, we don't have to wait. We see it happening; and we have no time to be impatient, to get overly angry at Madison and Smithy and the grandparents for leaving Jack and Tris behind. We can concentrate on the reunion, on the return, on the forgiveness -- and on the secrets that the Fountain children discover.
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