Darrah gets in trouble when she pulls the fire alarm at the hospital and an old lady got hurt. As punishment, Darrah is asked to sit through a restorative justice circle and accept the consequences of her actions. Those consequences end up meaning Darrah has to help Mrs. Johnson around the house two afternoons a week for the foreseeable future. It doesn’t take long for Darrah to realize she actually likes helping Mrs. Johnson, especially when it comes to what she’s learning about cooking and baking. The fact that Mrs. Johnson has a super cute grandson doesn’t hurt, either. But Mrs. Johnson is worse off than she first appears, and when she dies, Darrah is left to deal with the loss.
Ann Walsh’s well-meaning but ultimately heavy-handed novel has some interesting things going for it. A detailed description of a restorative justice circle near the book’s beginning clues readers into the social justice concept and provides a nice alternative to simple community service or the paying of fines. Mostly likable characters also make this a pleasant enough read, but Walsh relies too heavily on tropes that are so overdone, they’re hardly effective.
In crafting a plot that relies on the wise elder tutoring a young, defensive whippersnapper, Walsh doesn’t offer her readers anything new or particularly insightful. While both Darrah and Mrs. Johnson are fairly well-realized characters, there’s also nothing about them that means they have any real staying power. There’s also the issue of Darrah’s transformation: she goes from bad to good so quickly it’s likely to make readers’ heads spin, and there’s no rationale for this sudden behavioral change.
On top of the sudden transformation, Walsh packs her novel full of other issues, and seems to lose sight of too many of them. Darrah’s main passion is acting at the beginning of the book, but it’s dropped so quickly that it’s not mentioned again as the novel reaches its conclusion. Other issues, including Darrah’s epileptic brother and strained relationship with her parents, hardly get the kind of treatment they deserve.
Well-meaning but half-baked.
Whatever by Ann Walsh. Ronsdale Press: 2013. Electronic galley accepted for review via publisher for 2013 Cybils.