________________ CM . . . . Volume XXIII Number 34. . . .May 12, 2017


The Agony of Bun O’Keefe.

Heather T. Smith.
Toronto, ON: Penguin Teen Canada, Sept., 2017.
216 pp., hardcover & ebook, $21.99 (hc.).
ISBN 978-0-14-319865-9 (hc.), ISBN 978-0-14-319866-8 (ebook).

Grades 6-9 / Ages 11-14.

Review by Kay Weisman.

** /4

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.



She yelled, “Go on! Get out!” So I did. It wasn’t easy. The path to the door was filled in again. I tried to keep it clear. But it was like shoveling in a snowstorm. There was only so much I could pile up on either side before it started caving in again. Not that I left the house that much.

At one point I had to turn sideways and suck in. I wondered how she did it. She was over three hundred pounds. As I inched forward I saw frozen smiles through a clear plastic bin. Barbie Dolls, $10 As Is.

I knew without looking there’d be some without limbs.

I tripped on a lamp and fell on a bike. She didn’t even laugh. The only sound was the tick tick tick of the bike’s spinning wheel. I watched till it slowed to a stop.

I took one last look at her before I disappeared behind a mountain of junk. She was nestled into a pile of garbage bags, a cup of tea balanced on her chest and I wondered, how will she get up without me?


In 1986, Bun O’Keefe, 14, runs away from the home she shares with her morbidly obese, hoarder mother, and ends up in St. John, NB. There she befriends Busker Boy, a street musician who allows her to stay at the rooming house that he shares with Chef, a pot smoking dishwasher with culinary dreams; Chris/Cher, a medical school dropout and drag queen; Big Eyes, a Catholic school girl trying to escape an abusive past; and The Landlord, a pimp who Bun is told to avoid at all costs. The action is episodic, serving mostly to reveal the backstories of the main characters. Busker Boy, an Indigenous youth, came to the city to rescue his sister from a life of prostitution. Chris/Cher left medical school when his parents cut him off financially after learning he is gay. And Big Eyes ran away from an abusive uncle and a strict religious upbringing.

     Smith’s strength is her attention to setting details and character development. Bun is a curious character—simultaneously learned (having memorized many facts from television, videotapes, and an assortment of reference books) and naïve. Because she has spent most of her life trapped inside her house, her emotional intelligence is that of perhaps a five year old. Her interactions with others are awkward, abrupt, and frequently insulting. Still, she finds happiness with this unique family, at least until two deaths rock her world. Further complicating her emotional healing, she is molested by The Landlord.

     What’s less believable is the premise that a 14 year old living with unrelated young adults on the edge of society could go completely unnoticed by any authority. Additionally, the story introduces too many issues for any one novel to adequately tackle. Suicide, prostitution, mental illness, sexual abuse, gender identity issues, racial politics, and abandonment—any one or two these would have sufficed. Instead, readers are left with the burden of all of these problems and no real closure for any of them.


Kay Weisman works as a youth services librarian at West Vancouver Memorial Library and chairs the Children’s Literature Roundtables of Canada’s Information Book Award.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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.
Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.

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