CM . . .
. Volume XXII Number 1. . . .September 4, 2015
My Life Before Me. (Secrets).
Victoria, BC: Orca, 2015.
248 pp., trade pbk., pdf & epub, $14.95 (pbk.).
ISBN 978-1-4598-0662-7 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-4598-0663-4 (pdf), ISBN 978-1-4598-0664-1 (epub). A “Secrets” Boxed Set is available for $79.95. ISBN 978-1-4598-1082-2
Grades 7-12 / Ages 12-17.
Review by Joe MacLachlan.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
The envelope held a single yellowed newspaper clipping. I double-checked, but that’s all there was. It wasn’t even a whole article. It was just a photograph with a caption underneath. The paper under the caption was ragged, as if someone had torn off the accompanying article. I looked at the photo. It showed a tombstone in what looked like a small cemetery. The stone in the center of the picture, the one the photographer had focused on, had fallen over. It lay on the ground. Beside it was a piece of stone that had broken off one corner. The photographer had taken the picture so that the engraving on the stone was legible:
August 10, 1923 – June 30, 1948
Mrs. Hazelton had told me the clipping was at the bottom of the basket when I was delivered to the home. What was it supposed to mean? Did it even have anything to do with me? Was Thomas Jefferson my father? If so, what had happened to him? How had he died? And at such a young age. He had been just short of his twenty-fifth birthday.
I skipped down to the caption. It started with the name of a town – Orrenstown, Indiana. Jefferson grave vandalized, it read. Sheriff denies Klan involvement.
That’s how I ended up in the Toronto bus station, buying a ticket to Orrenstown, Indiana.
When the orphanage she’s lived in all her life burns to the ground, Cady Andrews is not at all worried about her future. The tenacious 19-year-old has long known what she wants out of life: to make a difference in the world through journalism in the same way as her role model, Nellie Bly. Cady already has some experience in the newspaper world, having written the gossip column for the local newspaper in the small town of Hope where she grew up. However, when she moves to Toronto, she finds that, because of her gender and her age, big city newspapers are entirely unwilling to give her a chance. Thus, she decides to prove to the condescending, male-dominated world of print journalism that she is not only an able reporter, but an exceptional one. To this end, she decides to use the one clue she has about her past – an old newspaper clipping – to try to discover who her parents are and perhaps dig up a great story in the process. Cady follows the clues to Orrenstown, Indiana, and, as she digs, she finds herself uncovering secrets that many in the small town would prefer stayed buried – namely a 15-year-old murder investigation where it appears they arrested an innocent man.
My Life Before Me is a very compelling and readable mystery. Because it is written in first-person narrative, the reader feels strongly connected to the main character whose determination and self-confidence make her very likeable. Indeed, it is her character’s perseverance against both gender and racial discrimination that makes the story so compelling. Norah McClintock’s ability to weave two types of inequality – both sexism and racism – into the story allows her to provide a fresh take on the civil rights movement in this book.
In addition to some excellent thematic elements, My Life Before Me contains some great connections to actual historical events. The Civil Rights Movement is the most apparent component of the historical context of the book; however, the author also refers to more specific events, such as the murders of three college students, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James E. Chaney, who had gone to Mississippi to help black voters register. References to this and other actual events in the book would provide teachers with an excellent starting point for a background research project on topics, such as the Mississippi Burning trials or the murder of Emmett Till.
While the thematic and historical elements of the book are excellent, there are some minor problems with the story, itself. Firstly, apart from the very likeable protagonist, many of the settings and secondary characters are boring and cliché. As Cady steps off the bus, she enters a greasy-spoon diner where there are old men wearing straw hats, one of whom is named “Earl”. All the small town cliché characters are present, from the no-good sheriff (whose name is “Hicks”), to the gossiping ladies’ group who meet at the diner, to the kindly middle-aged woman named Maggie who takes Cady in (perhaps it’s just me, but I immediately pictured Kathy Bates playing this role in the big screen adaptation). Secondly, a number of coincidences occur in the story that are a little too convenient to be believable. For example, the motherly Maggie, who quickly befriends and provides a place for Cady to stay, also just happens to have vast experience in the world of print journalism. Thus, she’s well-suited to mentor the young Cady who’s embarking down the same path This and similar events make the story a tad far-fetched.
In spite of a few problematic plot elements, My Life Before Me is an enjoyable read. Students anywhere from early to late teens will relate to Cady and her struggles against the unfairness and inequity in the world.
Joe MacLachlan is a high school English teacher in Brampton, ON, but he frequently considers giving up his teaching career to become a handsome billionaire.
My Life Before Me. (Secrets).
Norah McClintock. Narrated by Karen Rowe.
Victoria, BC: Orca, 2015.
6 hours, CD (4 discs) & mp3, $29.95 (CD), $19.95 (mp3).
ISBN 978-1-4598-1092-1 (CD), ISBN 978-1-4598-1093-8 (mp3).
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