Book: Eight Keys by Suzanne LaFleur
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Several years ago I read Wendy Mass’ wonderful Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life. In that coming-of-age story, on Jeremy’s 13th birthday he receives a box from his deceased father and must find several keys his father hid in order to open it. Suzanne LaFleur twists that premise around in her novel Eight Keys.
Here we have Elise Bertrand, whose mother died at her birth and whose father died three years later after a short but intense illness. Elise has been raised by her father’s brother, Uncle Hugh, and his wife, Aunt Bessie. Elise’s best friend is Franklin and the two of them are starting middle school. At school, Elise is picked on by Mean Girl Amanda for her friendship with Franklin and for not dressing and talking like many other middle school girls. On her 12th birthday, she gets a letter from her father (he actually has one for her birthday every year) saying this is the last one and that he is leaving something for her to “discover and unlock.” Soon after, keys start mysteriously appearing, unlocking doors in the family barn and revealing to Elise glimpses of her mother, her father, and herself.
Since this is not an original premise (and it may not have been original when Miss Mass wrote Jeremy) I’ll focus on the characterization, which is always my favorite story element as a reader.
There are times when Elise is downright unlikeable. Usually, that results in my dislike of the book, but that was not the case here.
Elise is hard to take in her occasional treatment of Franklin. They have always had an uneven relationship—Elise is definitely the leader and Franklin the follower. Throughout their friendship, there are times when Elise is impatient with Franklin and that impatience manifests itself in the random unkind comment. Elise in time always apologizes and things go back to normal. However, on the first day of middle school, Franklin mentions to other kids that he and Elise “play knights.” Mean Girl Amanda hears this and proceeds to bully Elise mercilessly throughout the entire book. Elise is embarrassed and ultimately takes it out on Franklin—mildly at first and eventually with cruelty. She knows what she is doing is wrong and is regretful, but Amanda’s incessant and escalating campaign of intimidation is making Elise’s life miserable.
So Elise the bullying victim in turns becomes Elise the bully. And just as where we see why Elise acts the way she does, we get a glimpse of what went into creating Amanda the terror. Yet I have sympathy for Elise and absolutely none for Amanda. Why is that?
I believe there is a distinct difference in between these two characters. Amanda has a crappy home life and takes it out on Elise. She immediately picks up on Elise’s vulnerability and insecurity and has a field day with them. Elise has not done anything to her, but Amanda smells weakness and goes in for the kill. Elise, on the other hand, does what many of us do when outside forces attack and we feel impotent—she projects her hurt onto someone she knows cares about her, someone feels secure with, someone she believes will care for her even when she treats him meanly (she gets a bit of a surprise there, BTW). Neither Amanda nor Elise acts correctly, but Amanda goes on the offensive (in more ways than one) while Elise’s actions are actually a defense mechanism.
There is also the remorse factor. Elise is chock full of it, and Amanda has none. We find out about Amanda’s home situation because Elise herself wants to figure out why Amanda is the way she is. Elise realizes that her own actions toward Franklin mirror Amanda’s behavior toward herself. She knows why she chose to be mean to Franklin, and she wants to know what makes Amanda act the way she does. She puts it altogether and has some sympathy for Amanda (unlike me!). But while Elise apologizes to Franklin and tries to make amends and learn from the experience, Amanda does not. She is content to stay as she is. If Elise is not her victim, someone else will be.
I admired Miss LaFleur’s treatment of the subject of bullying. This is a hot topic in education today, and multiple books I’ve read recently (Wonder and Because of Mr. Terupt come to mind first) seem to try to generate compassion for their Amanda-style bullies. I have a problem with that. Yes, it is important to see what goes into creating a bully, but personal problems don’t excuse the choices one makes to torment others—especially when there are no regrets about the malicious conduct. Miss LaFleur explained Amanda’s behavior, but did not excuse it.
So while the overarching plot may not be original, the various paths it takes are entertaining and engaging, and the characterization is superb. That’s key for good storytelling.