Friday, August 27, 2021

Book Review: A Million Things

By Jami Denison

As a proud card-carrying member of Generation X, I can clearly remember walking to school alone or with classmates as early as the first grade. And this school wasn’t exactly close, either. I had to go all the way down Brett Lane to the walking path, which wound its way through the woods, past the tot lot and up a hill before reaching Steven’s Forest Elementary. 

Can you imagine a child doing that today? Of course not. The police would get involved. Child Protective Services would come out. A child alone is a child in danger!

In A Million Things, Australian writer Emily Spurr’s heartbreaking debut, 10-year-old Rae is used to walking to school alone. After all, it’s just Rae, her mom, and her dog Splinter, and sometimes Rae’s mom disappears for a couple of days. Or rages at her. Rae goes to the grocery store on her own; she knows how to use her mother’s debit card and log onto her mother’s online banking. No one really pays any attention to them except the nosy old lady next door, Lettie. 

But today is different. Today Rae’s mother is gone and there’s a smell in the shed that Rae has to cover up. And now Rae has to go to school and to the grocery store and back home and pretend like everything is fine, especially to Lettie, who won’t stop asking questions. And then Lettie has a fall in her own home, and Rae realizes she’s not the only one with secrets. 

A Million Things is narrated by Rae in first person; the book reminded me of Emma Donoghue’s smash 2011 bestseller Room, which is narrated by a five-year-old boy imprisoned in a shed with his mother. Rae’s voice is incredibly mature, though, and I had trouble believing that this girl was in grade school. The character explains that she reads the dictionary when asked about her sophisticated vocabulary, but that doesn’t account for the complex sentence structure. 

Perhaps her upbringing does. A child forced to fend for herself, treated like an equal by a mother who refused to be one, develops a world view and an internal monologue older than her age. 

The too-sophisticated voice was the only thing that bothered me about A Million Things. Even though it doesn’t take place in the U.S., it felt like a very American book, a treatise on how we are conditioned not to ask for help, how we hide our secrets and insist that everything is okay even while the shed in the backyard betrays the rot that is really taking place. And part of me wanted Rae and Lettie to succeed; to be able to live their lives the way they wanted, without outsiders coming in and upsetting everything. 

I may have walked to school on my own at six years old, but there’s no way at 10 I would have been able to survive on my own for longer than a day or two. But today’s children, helicoptered though many of them are, know their way around the internet and food delivery apps and bank payments. We wouldn’t want our children to have to survive on their own… but it’s nice to know they could if they had to. 

Thanks to Berkley for the book in exchange for an honest review.

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