Willa Jo and her little sister have been sent to stay with their aunt after the sudden death of their baby sister. Their aunt found them and their mother living in general squalor in the days after the baby's death, the mother in a state of serious depression. Willa Jo, the eldest, tries to cooperate, though she misses her mother and finds her aunt overly controlling. Her little sister has responded to the baby's death by ceasing to speak, and Willa Jo has the added burden of trying to speak for her and shield her from the pressure others put on her to speak.

As the story opens, the two girls have climbed onto the roof one morning, and are staying there, much to the distress of the aunt and several neighbors. As she sits there surveying the landscape, Willa Jo reflects back on the weeks since the death, giving the reader in flashback a chronology that combines both tragic and comic moments of coping with trauma and change.


The point of view from which the story is told is down-to-earth, quirky, and observant. Willa Jo is a spunky character--the kind of child oldest siblings might especially identify with in her conflict over felt responsibility to be a caretaker for her younger sister and a mediator with adults. The narrative moves slowly, but each chapter has its own entertaining incident, providing a variegated look at how coping strategies develop.

The fact that the little sister can't speak is clearly identified as a post-traumatic response that finally resolves itself. Both adult and child characters are well-drawn; even the difficult aunt is portrayed with a certain sympathy for the anxieties of adults who are also in pain, and the mother's depression is similarly treated as a medical problem that needs time to heal. A fine story for exploring what healing means.


This novel won the Newberry Award.



Place Published

New York



Page Count