Several years ago I bought Karen Harrington's book, SURE SIGNS OF CRAZY (Little Brown Books, 2013) at a SCBWI conference. As my bookshelves fill up with newer books, sometimes older ones take a back seat. Deciding it was time to read this debut novel, I sped through it in just a few days. For some fortunate reader of this blog, I bet you will too.
Twelve-year-old Sarah Nelson is haunted by her past. When she was two, her mother tried to drown her and her twin brother, Simon. Sadly, Simon died and her mother was sent to a mental-health facility. Sarah hasn't seen her for the last ten years and hears from her only two times a year. More than anything, Sarah longs to know her mother, to have her mother know her, and to not go crazy like her mother did.
Recently, I blogged about Jan Cheripko's workshops at Highlights Summer Camp about secondary characters. Since I found the secondary characters in SURE SIGNS OF CRAZY to be so well-developed and adding so much to the plot, I decided to show how they contributed to Sarah's story.
Early on the reader meets Plant, Sarah's best friend. Plant gets moved from one rental house to another and is the recipient of Sarah's confidences and fears.
Most days when I water Plant, I have a new trouble word to tell her. All of them are mixed deep in her soil. If secrets were seeds, she could bloom leaves that would make me blush.
And if she did bloom and show the world all my secrets, I just don't know what I'd do. Probably I'd lie and say, "Oh, she was here when we moved in. These are the secrets of another girl." (p. 13)
The book begins with the end of sixth grade. Sarah receives an assignment from her English teacher, Mr. Wister, who is another important secondary character. On the last day of school he hands out composition books with the assignment to write an actual letter or story. When the students complain he answers, "Most people don't know what they truly think until they write it down. Don't you want to know what you truly think?" (p. 39)
Without too much thought, Sarah begins a letter to Atticus Finch, one of her literary heroes.
Dear Atticus Finch,With that, a "correspondence" between Sarah and Atticus begins in which she pours her heart out to him. Although she tries hard to hide the reality of her mother's actions from the people around her, Atticus (and Plant) are safe. They'll never rat on her and they help her feel less alone.
I am writing to you for a class assignment given to me by the greatest English teacher ever, Mr. G. Wistler. He had the idea that we should choose a character to write to. I can't say for certain, but I think I'm the only one writing to you. That is good for me. Most of my classmates are writing to Harry Potter and Lucy Moon. Maybe you've met them at the library. When I was little, I used to think that when the library closed, all the characters came out of the books. (p. 41)
Lisa is her best friend ("But when you hardly have any friends, best is relative." p.45) who really doesn't serve as much purpose as Atticus or Plant do--except that Sarah hides the truth of her family from her. Lisa is also the girl who is what Sarah wants to be-- a "normal" about-to-be-seventh-grader that has pierced ears and wants her first French kiss.
Charlotte is the college-aged babysitter who Sarah stays with while her father is at work. She is like a big sister to Sarah, helping her out when Sarah gets her period for the first time and teaching her about make up. But Sarah is more sensible than her babysitter. When Charlotte can't seem to break up with her loser boyfriend, Sarah tries to convince her that she'd be better off without him.
Because Sarah spends her summer days at Charlotte's house, she meets Charlotte's younger brother Finn. Despite a big age difference, the two connect over their love for words. One day they're killing time watching The Price is Right when an announcer breaks into the show.
"This is only the second time in Texas's history the charge has been brought forth, the first time being the case of Thomas Nelson following the trial of his wife, Jane Nelson." And there she is, entering my life announced and unwanted. (p. 157)Finn handles the news with aplomb and later says to her,
"Anyway, we all have big secrets," he says.
"Really? What's yours?" I ask. "Do you have a tattoo somewhere?"
He leans into the door frame, studies his shoes."My dad killed himself when I was eleven."
Then time waits for him to speak again. That's how big the secret is. It has to come out slow. "Apparently, I look just like him, which is a real problem for my mother," he says. "She still has a big reminder of him, you know, whether she wants it or not. So when he died, I sort of lost both my parents, you know. I was mad at both of them, but that doesn't help. I think that's how it might be with your dad."
I swallow hard. This is the kind of information you want to run and be alone with, dissect it and break it down to be sure you heard it right.
"It sucks," is all I can say.
"I agree with your choice of verbs," he says.
"At least your secret cannot be announced during The Price is Right. (p. 190)Sarah's alcoholic professor father, Thomas Nelson, is a very important secondary character. Although Sarah hates his drinking and even at one point pours out his Jim Beam, he is all the parent she has. Her growth is almost in spite of him. At the end of the book after Sarah sees him passed out on the sofa at his parent's house Sarah announces:
"I'm going to go see her so I can talk. Just to her. I have things I need to day."
"Couldn't we talk---"
"No," I cut him off.
"Maybe a counselor..."
"No," I tell him again. I want to cry, but the brave girl won't let me. "You are evading. Atticus says a child can spot an evasion quicker than grown-ups. You are supposed to answer my questions." (p. 253)Sarah tosses To Kill a Mockingbird at her father, tells him to read it and suggests he might learn something from it.
Easily the most important secondary character is Sarah's mother, Jane Nelson. The reader mostly meets her in Sarah's thoughts about her, but despite her father's protests, Sarah decides to visit her at the hospital. On the bus trip to the hospital, Sarah writes a moving letter to her mother, pouring out all of her hopes for the relationship they never had. Sadly, Sarah never gets to say what she longs to tell her.
But her letter writing to Atticus has changed her. Before visiting the hospital they stop by Simon's grave. Afterwards her fathers asks Sarah:
"What did you put on Simon's grave?"
"From the book?"
"The part where Atticus describes courage. What it means to have it."
Dad tells me I'm the most courageous person he's ever met. It goes straight to that secret place inside of me where I keep my favorite words. (p. 272)
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