01 May 2013

Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O'Neill



Thoughts and Reflections:
This novel knocked my socks off. I can't remember where I heard about it, but somewhere along the line I had requested it from the library and suddenly it had arrived. Not being someone who reads the synopsis, I had little knowledge about the book other than it was on the short-list for the Governor Generals Award and one of the Canada Reads books.

This was absolutely one of the most difficult books I have ever read. The protagonist, Baby, is the daughter of a heroine addict. The novel discusses her life Montreal as a child of poverty and neglect. It discusses how the entire world let her down time and time again, until she is prostituting and shooting heroine at the age of fourteen. It is a devastating story.

The novel begins on a much lighter note. The reader is quickly made aware of the habits of the eleven year old Baby, but also of the close relationship between father and daughter. Despite his addiction and neglect, he loves his daughter deeply. Baby is a remarkably endearing character throughout the novel. The reader first becomes acquainted with her when she is still completely a child, dazzled by her father, charmed by the quirks of life, and unperturbed by the poverty and cruelty around her.

Ironically, her life begins to flip upside down when her father, Jules, goes into rehab. This event changes their relationship and proceeds to isolate one from the other. This is also when Baby's life takes a definitive turn for the worst. Baby becomes the main decision maker in her life, but the decisions she is forced to make at this stage are terrible.

The reader is made to sit idly by as Baby is failed by the system, her peers, her father, her school, and essentially every adult in her world. She becomes stigmatised as a troubled kid and is subsequently ostracised by her friends and the adults around her. When she becomes involved in a community group for troubled youth, her father prevents her from participating in a group for "delinquents," thus perpetuating the stigmatisations.

The novel discusses the role of social workers and the social system as they affect Baby. This is not a pretty picture to paint. The social workers fail to listen or get to know Baby, stigmatising her and putting her in a school for troubled kids, despite her previous academic performances. Her social workers are mostly a revolving door and Baby fails to develop a consistent relationship with any worker, because they don't work with her for very long. Eventually, they confuse her situation and also her history and present.The novel clearly indicated how the system failed to even attempt to help a kid like Baby, a kid who, to the readers eyes, is good hearted but continually run down by her situation in life.

Baby's stigmatisation is one of the most prevalent themes and it runs throughout the book. She becomes increasingly aware of how she is stigmatised and subject to its consequences. She goes from appearing like a unique and creative child in a touch situation to a poor kid to a troubled kid to a prostituting drug addict. People leave her behind, not wanting to touch or be touched by her life. Parents prevent their children from associating with her, rather than becoming the welcoming and reliable adult. Their abandonment of her and her increasing stigmatisation drives her to increasingly terrible situations and decisions. Not wanted to be involved with her pimp/boyfriend any longer, she seeks out a friend from school, who is then prevented from seeing her by his parents because she is a troubled kid. Having no one else to turn to in a difficult situation, Baby returns to the toxic relationship with the pimp/boyfriend. 

The book discusses drug addiction, the reasons for starting on drugs, and, naturally, the consequences. It is completely stunning when Baby begins taking drugs, but somehow understandable. Baby was a child who became completely isolated in the world, with no one other than an abusive pimp/boyfriend to turn to. The reader watches as her childhood melts away, being replaced with a terrifying adulthood, all before she becomes a teenager.

This book was incredibly difficult to read. It was absolutely a book that I wanted to throw aside without reading any further and never think about it again. However, I knew if I did that, I would never be able to get the characters or situations out of my mind, so continued reading through the tough and tumble.

The ending is somehow pleasant, which was a huge relief. I could only imagine the future that lay ahead for Baby if she was allowed to continue on her path. The reader had watched the somehow remarkably preventable moments occur in her downfall and was again watching as these striking events, seemingly coincidences, lead her back to some kinds of normal life. The novel ends with her at the very beginning of a new chapter of her life. I wondered very much about how she would leave behind her world of before, one of perverted men and unreliable adults. Could a mere change of scenery alter the course of perception and drug addiction? Nonetheless, it is a hopeful ending.

In some ways, strangely, despite the very cruel reality of Baby's situation, the book is still sugar coated. Baby has a father is is mixed up, but he still loved her deeply. Baby is very endearing and the reader has the distinct impression that she is, throughout the novel, a good kid in a bad situation. She is distinguished from other kids in similar situations as somehow being of a gentler spirit and kinder heart, as though she were the only one of them with purer intentions an desires, that all she needed was a bit of love to straighten her out again. I certainly believe that a reliable, caring, and consistent adult in her life would be a major game changer in her life, but the novel somewhat ignores the issues that she will be facing due to the events of her life. The ending, as I mentioned, is hopeful, but does not really pursue the reality of the issues that Baby will have to sort out, even if she were in the most wonderful and loving situations. Heroine addiction is one thing, not to mention that everything she has learned about the world to date had to do with drug addiction, abuse, and prostitution. Moving to the ideal country setting with caring adults does not instantly change learned behaviours. Despite the ending's positivity, Baby has a major uphill battle ahead of her.

I'm not sure if I would recommend this novel. It is a very well written novel, but it is also an utterly devastating read. At the same time, perhaps everyone should read this novel, if only to have their eyes opened by the truth of how we stigmatise people when perhaps they just need a hand up. I was struck to learn when I read the brief biography of the author that the novel is somewhat biographic. It becomes impossible to declare that times have changed or that this is just a novel when hit by the understanding that such a life was someone's reality.

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