Amalee, By Dar Williams, Scholastic, 240 pp., $16.95
Songwriter Dar Williams rose from Boston folk stages to national stardom with ballads depicting childhood and adolescence as the difficult, uncertain times they often are. Fittingly, her first novel is aimed at children 9 and up but will surely delight any who enjoy her music.
Williams's empathy and uncompromising honesty are wonderfully employed in telling the tale of precocious 11-year-old Amalee Everly. She is being raised, to her tastes, a bit too dotingly by her single father and his four friends, who appointed themselves surrogate parents when Amalee's mother deserted the family and later died in a car accident.
She sees her father, whom she adores, and his friends as people who gave up on their big dreams and settled into small, disappointed lives. When her father becomes seriously ill, however, everything changes.
In telling the story from Amalee's perspective, Williams applies her droll gift for seeming cute without being diminutive. Amalee is constantly catching herself going over the top ("I narrowed my eyes to look very serious, but they didn't notice"), saying too much (Chapter 1 is called "The Night I Opened My Big Mouth"), and questioning her intentions. The fact that she is often too hard on herself simply makes us like her more.
We also see how isolating and frightening 11 can be, as when Amalee "felt so lonely that I tried to read a book in the dark." Her first day in school after learning her father is ill, "I decided
to pretend I was a river rock,
letting the river of whatever hard
words I heard today wash over
me." The cruelties of sixth grade, from bullying to budding sexual vanity, offer cold counterpunches to Amalee's family problems. She feels lucky to have the friendship of two girls she thinks are the smartest in her class but is unaware that she, in fact, is widely viewed as the smartest kid, and that it is they who are seeking status in her company.
Watching her figure this out, with the help of a spritelike new friend named Sarah, offers some of the book's best lessons: that real friends are people you don't need to pose around, and that kindness is a better tool for popularity than coolness. When this epiphany comes, Amalee typically overdoes it. Noticing a hole in a snooty friend's sweater, she exults to herself, "Who cares about a little hole? Not we who swim in the river of kindness!"
As her father's friends rally to deal with his illness, the story takes on a fairy-tale quality. All their latent talents become the stuff of comic-book superheroes, as each takes a turn saving the day. In evaluating these mature triumphs, Williams strikes a few false notes, as when Amalee explains a therapy technique used on her depressed dad: "Phyllis had helped him clear a path to his childhood." How long has this kid been hiding New Age Journals under her bed?
This would not seem jarring were Amalee not otherwise so vividly and believably sketched. And she is often wise beyond her years. As she makes her dad a sandwich, she ponders whether addressing him by his first name might prompt the frank conversation she desperately needs to have about his illness.
The decision to spare Amalee the gritty details of her father's condition inevitably leads to her making a bad situation worse. She is left to assume the worst, with nearly catastrophic results. By book's end, both kids and adults have learned painful, precious lessons about the need for honesty. And throughout this endearing, authentic little novel is a grand theme heard in many of Williams's best songs: that life's seemingly great tragedies are often its dearest blessings, coming to us in disguise.