What am I more afraid of? Prinny drowning on the reef? Or Tate and Mel? (p. 16)
Sigrid Sugden is a Shrike. She, Tate, and Mel blackmail their schoolmates, though no teacher has yet found proof of their bullying. This changes when Tate and Mel are willing to let one of their victims die. Sigrid isn’t. She makes a call that saves Prinny, who has dared to stand up to the Shrikes – Prinny, who gave them that nickname in the first place, after the “butcher bird” – a call which earns her Tate’s and Mel’s enmity. Now everybody knows what nearly happened, and Sigrid is told to start again. She wants to turn over a new leaf, leave off being a bad girl and learn to be nice again. But nice didn’t get her anywhere before, and nice doesn’t help when nobody trusts you.
Things I love about this book? First off, Sigrid tells it like it is. She doesn’t prevaricate, unless she doesn’t realize something herself, and she doesn’t softpedal the facts. There are no facades, not really. Everybody in the small town of Fiddler’s Cove, Newfoundland, has something going wrong, and everybody knows everybody else’s business. Sigrid’s straight-forward voice, however, contains depths of what is seen and what is unseen. No facades doesn’t mean there are no secrets; it means that everybody finds out sooner or later, and that somebody’s shell is just as much a part of their nature as the hurt it attempts to conceal and make bearable.
And there’s a lot of hurt. Sigrid has lost her best friend (moved to Calgary), her father (walked out on the family; currently living in Fort McMurray with his girlfriend and their children), and her mother (lives at home, sort of, but far more interested in the business she and her best friend run than in anything and anybody else). And that’s just Sigrid. Every single bully in the story, Shrike or not, has a complex and painful home life. Bullying is implicitly a result of familial or personal tragedies, most particularly abuse, neglect, and/or abandonment. It is also, Jill MacLean makes very clear, each child’s choice. Neither parents nor children are exempt from culpability.
As you might expect from a girl who has terrorized her classmates for two years, Sigrid’s motives for even the most seemingly kind deeds aren’t entirely pure. She means well, but the reasons behind her actions – her fear, her pain, her loneliness – can’t be shucked aside like a too-small raincoat. And really, she doesn’t know where to begin in reforming. Maybe it would be better to go back to the Shrikes. It certainly would be safer. I loved the starts and restarts as Sigrid haltingly attempts to change her ways. She fails and fails again and again; she slowly learns to see her own hidden agendas and the reasons for why others are the way they are. Her misguided attempts at amends, at vengeance, and at mending bridges are equal parts sincere and flawed; they feel as though they were pulled straight from life. This is, I must emphasize, an extraordinarily real-feeling, true-feeling, novel; the characters step off the page in their fullness.
I also loved the complex – the realistic – relationships between the characters, whether adults or children. I liked the growing comradeship between Sigrid and Hud, and I was cheering for Prinny and Travis, who have been bullied by Sigrid and Hud, respectively, as they refuse to accept easy apologies. Travis and Prinny appear as the protagonists, respectively, in the earlier novels in this series set in Fiddler’s Cove: The Nine Lives of Travis Keating and The Present Tense of Prinny Murphy. Each novel is set in roughly the same time frame with many common characters, but the protagonists and central conflict are distinct. Each story is a stand-alone, although I doubt anyone who reads one story will willingly forgo the others. Meanwhile, I’m hoping for more, please. Lots more.