Wednesday, September 14, 2005

The Mercury News review

Kim Boatman of the San Jose Mercury News wrote an especially perceptive review of What I Call Life

A sensitive portrait of children's life in foster care
By Kim Boatman
Mercury News
A novel for young readers about a child cast adrift in the foster-care system could take plenty of wrong turns. There's potential here for maudlin hand-wringing and the sort of angst that typifies too much young adult fiction. But Santa Cruz author Jill Wolfson deftly negotiates all these potential pitfalls in delivering a warm and genuine first novel, ``What I Call Life.''

Through the person of one Carolina Agnes London Indiana Florence Ohio Renee Naomi Ida Alabama Lavender, or Cal Lavender for short, Wolfson offers insights about foster care, the resiliency of the human spirit and how, in times of need, families are sometimes stitched together under the most unlikely circumstances.

Wolfson, a former Mercury News writer and editor, has written extensively about the juvenile justice and family court systems. But her story this time is wisely personal and intimate, told by Cal, a young girl whose world comes unraveled when her unstable mother loses control in a public place and the authorities move in to protect Cal. Her disbelief at finding herself in a foster home neatly captures how not just children but plenty of adults feel about their lives.

``Everyone is always living her story.

``When I first heard this, I thought: What kind of nutty philosophy is that? Who would buy it? Everyone. Always?

``All I had to do was look at my own personal situation to see how wrongheaded this kind of thinking happened to be. I looked around at where I was living at the time and with whom I was living and shook my head. No, sir. This isn't my story. This is nothing like my life.''

So begins ``What I Call Life,'' and Wolfson proceeds to neatly intertwine Cal's story with a back story involving the orphan trains of the late 19th and early 20th century that brought children to the Midwest and West from Eastern cities.

Just how the girls cope is part of the story, too. Cal works furiously to control the environment around her, presenting a facade to the world that includes ``My Face for Unbearably Unpleasant and Embarrassing Situations.'' Another girl doesn't talk. A third invents a sister with whom she plans to reunite. Together, under the wily, subtle guidance of a foster mother known simply as the Knitting Lady, they and other girls in the home learn to live their own stories.

There is wisdom to be found here, but Wolfson doesn't smack her young readers over the head with newfound knowledge. Instead, she delivers believable dialogue in a nicely paced, sensitive book.
By Jill Wolfson
Henry Holt, 272 pp., $16.95
Ages 10 and up

No comments: