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The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

McKay, Hilary  Permanent Rose.  McElderry, 2005  [240p]
ISBN 1-4169-0372-0  $15.95
Reviewed from galleys                                                         R*  Gr. 5-9

The willingness of recent children's literature to address difficult truths about life's challenges has been a healthy direction, and there have been some classic, hard-hitting novels as a result of that willingness.  Sometimes, though, it seems as though the embrace of hard truths has left little room for gentler ones, that these days affectionate family stories must either be sentimental novels of didactic sweetness, stories of tough times, or titles aimed at younger readers not yet ready for grittier subjects; sometimes, that is, until you get to Hilary McKay.

British author McKay displayed her gifts for humorous domestic particularity, sparkling prose, and perceptive explorations of individual and group relations back with her American debut The Exiles (BCCB 12/92), and she's never looked back, producing novel after spirited novel about kids, families, and daily lives.  She's come to special prominence, however, with her books about the Casson family, beginning with Saffy's Angel (BCCB 5/02), wherein Saffy's wonderings about her place in the family (she's an adopted Casson) led her to connect with elements of her past.  Then, in Indigo's Star (BCCB 9/04), teenaged Indigo Casson and his eight-year-old sister Rose made friends with American Tom, defused the bullying that had plagued Indigo, and then bade Tom farewell when he returned to the States, and the family finally acknowledged that Mr. Casson had in fact separated from Mrs. Casson and acquired a new girlfriend to boot.  Now, in Permanent Rose, Rose is bitterly missing Tom, who's yet to be heard from, and finding David, the yearningly friendly former bully, a despicable substitute; oldest sister Caddy is starting to have doubts about her engagement; and sister Saffy and her inseparable friend, Sarah, are looking to uncover the identity of Saffy's birth father. 

It's McKay's genius that those various storylines of Permanent Rose  are all perfectly turned, with their own independent logic and justification, yet they all read effectively as familial response to the departure of Mr. Casson, particularly Rose's despair at her apparent abandonment by Tom and her implacability toward David ("She really could not understand Indigo's willingness to forgive David.  She herself would happily have detested him forever and ever and ever").  It's also McKay's brilliance that there's manifest silence about this connection—just like families who don't live in books, the Cassons undergo their believable individual and collective anxieties not because those anxieties are meaningful but just because they occur, and it's up to somebody with perspective, possibly the reader, to see the larger patterns.  The book resolutely insists on being about its people, not their problems.

And for all her comedic gifts, McKay treats those people with an abiding generosity and tenderness.  It's fitting that, in Permanent Rose, characters' standing largely depends on their treatment of Rose:  David's transformation from awkward bully is complete when he becomes, unbeknownst to Rose, what he most wants to be—the hero who enables her reunion with Tom; for all his flaws and limitations (and his sometimes understandable frustration at his family's helter-skelter ways), Mr. Casson loves his daughter and bumblingly escorts her to New York and Tom; Caddy's fiancé, noting Rose's lonely daily vigil for mail from Tom, brings her a rose every morning so she doesn't have to return from the mailbox empty-handed.  Yet Rose is no saintly symbol but a believable little girl, capable of thievery (she indulges in a streak of mad-at-the-world shoplifting), anger ("Rose had recently taken to wishing people were dead"), mess, and willfulness, but still credibly "darling, brave, loyal Rose," a person in her own right as well as a highly active player in the ensemble drama.

This is therefore a lively family story, where McKay's warm confidence in her characters allows the Cassons to remain credible as a happy family that encounters occasional curves in the road—and there's a really big one about Saffy's parentage revealed here—rather than a character set defined by their struggle.  The Casson saga freely acknowledges the mistakes that get made along the way but focuses on the making of the journey, individually and together, and celebrates the joyful possibilities of human connectedness.  The Cassons are brave, humorous, determined, and loving, and this story of their life is the same. 

Deborah Stevenson, Editor

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Cover illustration by Polly Kanevsky and Thierry Dosogne/Getty Images from Permanent Rose ©2005. Used by permission of Margaret K. McElderry Books.

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This page was last updated on June 1, 2005.