Summary: The year is 1971 and the sudden death of 13 year-old Maureen’s Gran changes the dynamics of her family for the worse. Her mother’s already fragile institution is pushed to the limit, and her profound depression can only be treated through a stay at the local mental hospital. Maureen is expected to step up in her mother’s absence, doing household chores previously done by her Gran and her mother. Finding herself facing the stigma of having a mother dealing with mental illness and the pressures of her increased responsibility, Maureen is also finishing up her grade eight year and going on her first date. When Maureen’s mother returns, Maureen realises that some of the security she once had has been lost, but a new strength has taken its place.
Number of Pages: 165
Age Range: 13-14
Review: First off, I’d just like to say that Susan Chalker Browne does an excellent job of placing her reader in the 1970s. Her descriptions of character clothing were easy to picture and really set the scene.
The subject of mental illness is a difficult one to handle in a sensitive and real manner, but Browne provides us with an honest portrayal of a girl thrust into adulthood by her mother’s depression. When a caregiver or parent is ill or absent in a family, children are often expected to take on more adult roles at home emotionally and practically. Maureen is faced with both situations at once through the death of her Gran and the illness of her mother, and learns quickly she must give up her childish ways to help her family survive.
There’s a strong sense of community in this story as Maureen’s family and extended family rally around Maureen’s mother before and after she is in the hospital. The fact that she needs extra attention and care is acknowledged and accepted by them as they strive to protect her and take care of Maureen and Beth-Ann, her children.
I believed Maureen would choose to act out in music class by trying to funny and popular in response to the confusion she was experiencing in her home life, but when her actions and their unintended side effects were quickly snuffed, I kind of wished she had been given more of an opportunity to act her age without judgement. Yes Maureen made mistakes, but they seemed pretty mild for the reaction they received. I wonder if this simply has to do with the fact that the book was set in the 1970s though, or the fact that Maureen was attending a Catholic school.
In the end, Browne has written an authentic tale in the voice of a thirteen year-old girl who shows maturity beyond her years through a difficult situation. I would recommend this book to early teen readers.
“Have people forgotten that I am only thirteen? Whenever I try to talk to him about Mom, he cuts me off. I know he’s upset about all this, but there’s no point taking it out on me. ‘Nothing wrong with your mother,’ he says sharply, irritated and annoyed. ‘She’s just upset about Gran dying. She’ll feel better soon.’ Which I’m starting to realize is not true. This is simply going on too long.” – Maureen from The Secret Life of a Funny Girl by Susan Chalker Browne, page 22
Of course, I still had to face Dad about it all. First, there was the teasing. ‘A date? My little girl wants to go on a date? Well, maybe that young man should have introduced himself to your dad before asking you out!’ I mean, really! We’re not living in the Jane Austen era, last time I checked. You’d think John was asking for my hand in marriage, the way Dad was getting on.” – Maureen from The Secret Life of a Funny Girl by Susan Chalker Browne, page 75
“Gran’s determined cheerfulness suddenly slips away from her face, and for a moment her eyes look vacant and lonely. My heart twists for her. What do you do when the person you love most is taken away?” – Maureen from The Secret Life of a Funny Girl by Susan Chalker Browne, page 80
“It’s scary, isn’t it, how fast things can happen? … Who could have dreamed on that stormy Saturday morning in February … that life would change so quickly? Probably it’s just as well you don’t know what’s coming. You’d be so upset just thinking about it, you wouldn’t be able to concentrate on anything else.” – Maureen from The Secret Life of a Funny Girl by Susan Chalker Browne, page 82
“A calm settles over me, but then it’s replaced by a tiny niggling doubt. Can this be true, is Mom really all right, is she home for good? I remember Sister Marion’s words that day in her office and they echo in my brain: ‘Your mother may always need a little extra attention, Maureen . . . you must be careful never to cause her any upset or confusion.’ Maybe it’s not really over. How can we be sure Mom will never get sick again?” – Maureen from The Secret Life of a Funny Girl by Susan Chalker Browne, page 137
“The roaring fire in the grate has everyone all warm and relaxed. Outside, wind lashes the window and rain dribbles down to squiggly lines, but here in this room we’re safe and warm and dry. The four of us together at last, a family once again.” – Maureen from The Secret Life of a Funny Girl by Susan Chalker Browne, page 138