THANKS FOR SPOILERIZING THE ENTIRE STORY ON THE FIRST PAGE, COWARD-MCANN!
Whoa. This was way darker than I expected. Especially after the first-page spoiler, which makes everything sound all harmless.
At first I just felt a little down about Ellen, the oldest child who has a crazy shitload of work and responsibility dumped onto her, basically non-stop. She gets up before dawn to do a paper route, makes breakfast for everyone (different
individual breakfasts, because her family members are all too special to eat the same thing), cleans, takes care of all her siblings and the neighbor baby, gets the groceries, makes lunch, bathes the kids, makes tea... I don't know how this girl doesn't flunk out of school. But she seems pretty cheerful, and Forest seems to mean for us to like the parents, so fine, judgement suspended. But I'm lying about that, because really I did think they were pretty neglectful and irresponsible, and they don't even listen to their kids. But at least the family is affectionate.
But that's not the main point. Bart, the neighbor baby, is stolen while the kids are in the library. And it isn't funny. Even though the reader knows the baby is safe, and there is some humor in the prose, the kids are obviously frightened and upset and panicked (except for Bobbin, who is frankly a brat and only likeable at all in comparison to the psycho neighbor girl Kathy). Their miles and hours of rushing around town trying to find the baby are emotionally exhausting. Lost dogs and car crashes are not amusing, either. I felt awful for Ellen and Neil, trying to cope with responsibility and distress unsupported. I even felt sad for Kathy, although I loathed her.
This really wasn't what I expected. I haven't read Forest before but had the impression that her stories were more wholesome and old-fashioned. I do think she is very good at character-writing, however -- everyone felt real to me. Even some secondary characters who only have a few pages are really solid, like the rather depressing but too annoying to be pitiable old neighbor woman whom everyone wants to avoid because she won't shut up with her unsolicited advice and bossiness, but who deludedly believes she is good with people and children love her, or the nameless people in the store with their assorted reactions to Kathy's shoplifting. Jamie, the younger sister, wants to be a cowboy but has uncontrollable crying fits. Steadfast Ellen was almost too good to be true -- she's pretty much the perfect daughter and sister -- but Forest resists simplification and stock characters admirably. I'm definitely willing to give her another try.