The Half-Orphan’s Handbook

Imprint. Apr. 2021. 336p. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9781250624680.
Gr 9 Up–Lila Cunningham’s father is dead. She jokes about this as if she’s playing a game of Clue: “The father, in the woods, with a rope.” But David, her father, wasn’t murdered: He took his own life. Like many protagonists—especially women—of trauma novels, Lila quips large. She shows more depth during an argument with her mother, Jenny, about going to Bonaventure grief camp, which Mom gently but firmly asserts is a healing place. Mortified after angrily blaming Jenny for David’s death, Lila apologizes for her outburst and attends. The Cunninghams can’t afford Bonaventure’s steep tuition, so Aunt Shelly pays it. Lila is a track star and top hurdler, and at camp she meets Deese, an athlete she recognizes from home, and her acceptance of his help in training signals Lila’s desire to return to “normal” life. Camp offers friendship, though Lila wants answers. Learning, for example, that unlike a fatal accident or illness, suicide is a “preventable” death, doesn’t explain how David could have decided to abandon his family. What does help is beginning to learn secrets about her dad, including his gambling addiction, reminding readers how addiction changes people—and how overwhelming and destructive it can be. Lila is white, Deese is Black, and her other friends at camp have various skin tones.
VERDICT Set in a New England grief camp, this debut novel’s believable characters make plain that suffering the loss of a loved one while young is difficult, and common.

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