Facing up to family secrets
Following on the heels of Belle Teale, her acclaimed novel for preteens, Ann M. Martin has left the Babysitters Club for richer, more serious fare. A Corner of the Universe, set in 1960, brings us Hattie Owen, an almost-12-year-old who lives in the fictional town of Millerton. Hattie narrates this poignant story of truth, lies and one family's struggle to cope with a mentally ill relative. Hattie's world is made up of the residents in her parents' boarding house, her best friend Betsy and her grandparents, Hayden and Harriet Mercer, the wealthy, strait-laced pillars of Millerton society.
Out of the blue, Hattie's sheltered world is shaken up as she learns that she has a 21-year-old uncle named Adam who has been living in a special school in Ohio. The school is closing, forcing Adam to move home to Millerton with his parents, the stiff and patrician Nana and Papa. Hattie's mother tries to explain the situation, but the words she uses to describe Adam are unfamiliar and frightening: autistic, schizophrenic.
When Adam arrives, Hattie is unexpectedly enchanted. Reciting long passages from the I Love Lucy show and brimming with enthusiasm for Hattie and her parents, Adam is a burst of energy in contrast with his staid, controlled family. All smiles and excited words, he enthralls his niece, even as Nana is constantly reminding him of the rules of behavior and etiquette.
But there is another side to Adam. When frustrated or overwhelmed with sights and sounds, this boy-in-a-man's-body (or freak, as the mean girls in town call him) can suddenly be reduced to shaking tears and hysteria.
The complexity of this novel lies in the characters' responses to Adam. Nana appears tough and intolerant, but in the end it is her love for her troubled son that remains. Hattie's mother seems hardened and unattached to Adam, whom she says is difficult to love. But we learn that she was the one who stayed close to him during his long stay at the special school. Even Hattie herself, who loves and is so changed by Adam, harbors her own fears: She worries that she might be like him and wonders if there are any more secret uncles out there.
Without being didactic, Martin has told the story of one unforgettable summer in the life of a strong, mature heroine. This story will resonate with young readers.