CM . . .
. Volume XXIII Number 18. . . .January 20, 2017
The Secrets We Keep is by the prolific Toronto based author Deb Loughead. At only 182 pages, Loughead is clearly targeting the teenaged reluctant reader. But, despite the short length, The Secrets We Keep takes on quite a lot and succeeds in presenting an engaging story in a brisk pace.
Besides the complicated plot, Loughead also explores important themes like the complexity of abusive relationships, the nature of honesty, guilt and responsibility, how the cognitively challenged are treated in our society, and the impact technology can have on relationships.
The story follows Clementine or Clem as she’s known, a high school girl with a guilty, haunting secret. Clem believes she was the last person to see her cognitively-challenged classmate Kit alive before he drowned in the quarry during an illicit party attended by as many as 150 kids. The “coroner’s inquest called it ‘death by misadventure’”. But Joan Stitski, Kit’s angry, grief-stricken mother, is certain some of the kids at the party that night know more than they’re telling. Clem is intimidated by Mrs. Stitski’s rage and haunted by her belief that she could have prevented Kit’s death. In her shame, she keeps silent. Her friend Ellie exploits this silence to protect a secret of her own. Ellie is seeing Mac, an older boy she knows her mother would not approve of. She threatens to expose Clem’s secret if Clem doesn’t cover for her, and this becomes the central conflict of the novel.
It’s complicated and counterintuitive – why doesn’t Clem just tell what she knows about the night Kit died? Why does she allow herself to be manipulated by Ellie? But the world of young adults is a mysterious place, and trying to understand teen motivation is often beyond the comprehension of adults.
Clem’s crush on Jake provides a break from her obsessive guilt for both the reader and Clem. Although it is a somewhat charming skateboard mishap that finally brings the couple into each other’s orbit, it is their shared sense of responsibility for doing the right thing for Kit and his family that unites them.
Clem is a solid character, and many readers will identify with her self-imposed torment and struggle to manage all the deceit and drama in her life. While there is a disconnect between the immature way Clem initially manages the Kit conflict and the sophistication of the solution she and Jake develop, it perhaps highlights Clem’s growing self-awareness.
Perhaps because the story is filtered through Clem’s perspective, it’s hard to form a clear sense of Ellie. There is enough evidence to justify Clem’s disapproval of Ellie’s intense and, at times, almost ferocious relationship with, but Ellie is in the midst of so much conflict even she doesn’t really seem to know who she is.
The Secrets We Keep also features a so called “typical” family, a rare construction in modern young adult fiction. Clem comes from a family with two loving parents and a younger brother. They share meals, confide in one another, play board games and even agree on a set of “unplugged house rules” while at home together. The family offers a stark contrast to the single parent family Ellie is rebelling against and also the grief-torn family of the tragic Kit.
As Clem and Jake move closer to discovering what really happened the night Kit went missing and doing their best to make amends, their feelings for each other grow and deepen. This results in a new level of self-confidence for Clem. She emerges from all the drama, heartache, and confusion as a leader amongst her classmates and earns respect from her parents. There is a complicated and somewhat rushed ending/resolution, but Lougheed maintains intensity by creating scenes that deepen our understanding of abusive relationships.
The Secrets We Keep will be a welcome addition to library and classroom collections of Young Adult quick reads. Students, especially teenaged girls, looking for an escape that also reflects their own complicated lives will be satisfied with Deb Loughead’s latest novel.
Charlotte Duggan is a teacher librarian in Winnipeg, MB.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.