Ellie Dingman might only be a sixth-grader, but she has the wise, sometimes tired eyes and voice of a woman with way too much on her plate. First, her perpetually immature mother cannot see past her beauty queen crown or her potential as a fast-food spokeswoman to take care of her own children. Then, the mean girls in her school take it upon themselves to bully Ellie and her only friend Holly by a variety of means, each more cruel and insidious than the last. And bad things are happening in her lower-class neighborhood the ladies who live next door are the victims of hate crimes that eat away at everyone. And, if that isn't enough, President Kennedy is murdered.
Ann M. Martin, the beloved author of the Baby-Sitters Club series and such middle-grade fiction favorites as A Corner of the Universe, crafts a convincing portrait here of a family that could self-destruct in the face of challenges, but does not. Eleanor (named after Eleanor Roosevelt), Albert (after Albert Einstein), and Marie (after Marie Curie) live in Spectacle, a small town in upstate New York. Their mother, the self-named Doris Day Dingman, isn't up to the task of child rearing. She rarely cooks; instead she spends her days taking dance and acting lessons and dreaming endlessly of her big break. The children stick together and fend for themselves.
Everyone is affected by the news of JFK's assassination, but none more so than Doris. She obsesses about Jackie, the beautiful widow. She thinks about all the lost opportunities of her own life and makes a decision that changes everyone's lives: she leaves to follow her dream.
There is a lot going on in this novel, but Martin draws the reader in, peppering her plot with marvelous characters who are complex and caring. Just when Ellie is at the breaking point and the reader wonders how she will ever survive, Martin sends help from the best place: Ellie's father. He is shaken out of his pain as the rejected husband and does what needs to be done. Fathers are a silent and often absent breed in many stories, but Mr. Dingman is one readers won't soon forget.