“In Lullabies, I wanted to capture what I remembered of the drunken babbling of unfortunate twelve-year-olds: their illusions, their ludicrously bad choices, their lack of morality and utter disbelief in cause and effect” – Heather O’Neill on Lullabies for Little Criminals.
I had to begin with this quote because it’s such a succinct indication of how real O’Neill keeps her depiction of childhood. In fact, she’s been criticized by some readers (hopefully just the sheltered ones who still believe in the tooth-fairy) for keepin’ it too real – a concept that I find ridiculous since much of the inspiration for the characters and situations came from O’Neill’s memories of her own upbringing. Don’t get me wrong, I do sympathize with the need to quantify childhood with images of happy kids jumping-rope, but doesn’t it seem like blatant self-trickery to pretend that being a kid is always all sunshine and rainbows?
The fairytale land of childhood looks much different and not so squeaky-clean when it includes having a heroin-addicted father and being completely poverty-stricken, as it does for Baby, the protagonist and narrator in Lullabies. Growing up in Montreal’s red-light district, motherless, with no solid role models, and a father who’s in and out of rehab, Baby faces issues that no twelve-year-old should have to deal with. Yet, there’s a certain dissociative lightness and (much-needed) comic spin as Baby tells the story of her childhood in a voice that vacillates fascinatingly between adult and child. While her descriptions of the events in her life are speckled with a grown-up’s insight and understanding, they’re also sometimes purely hilarious in their naiveté. (SPOILER ALERT: In real life if I encountered a couple of thirteen year olds who were trying magic mushrooms, I would be concerned for them. But, when the kids in this book whipped up a spaghetti and magic mushrooms feast, because they thought magic mushrooms sounded “so cute”, my laughter could not be contained, unfortunately for my fellow ttc commuters.)
It’s not all fun though; O’Neill also delves into the seriously troubling relationships between children and adults, highlighting the ways in which kids are drawn to grown-ups and how they often find it difficult to distinguish between the well-meaning and the villainous. On that same wavelength, she paints a frightening picture of the seedy adults who weave themselves into the lives of children (children being the only demographic impressionable enough to embrace the dirtbags while unknowingly being exploited by them). When Baby get’s mixed up with the seemingly friendly neighborhood pimp it’s obvious that she’s looking for attention and willing to accept it indiscriminately.
Childhood fearlessness combined with her need for adult attention finds Baby in so many awful circumstances… I won’t lie, at some points it’s uncomfortable to read. If it were a movie I would’ve been cowering with my hand over my eyes. But, the thing is, the characters have such authentic personalities and relatable situations that reading this novel was like watching a close friend make mistake after mistake and being unable to reach out and help. All I could do was non-judgmentally read and hope for the best. Most shocking to me was my ability to be non-judgmental of characters that are clearly flawed; I really wanted to condemn Baby’s father, Jules, as no-good junkie but it’s pretty impossible not to like him on some level. With his extreme lack of fashion sense, his ridiculous stories, and his genuine (often misplaced) love for Baby, O’Neill did an amazing job of portraying him as a person and not just an addict.
It makes sense to me that this book was the Canada Reads winner for 2007. I loved the characters (or at least the characterization) and I didn’t find that O’Neill was keepin’ it too real; it’s so important to push these issues out into the open (regardless of whether it offends people’s refined sensibilities). Granted, I’ll probably never be able to look at scraggly little kids the same way again, but I think that’s probably a good thing.
[Ed. Note: JK also reviewed this book here]