This is actually hard to rate this book; a beautiful middle-grade coming-of-age story, yet the ending left me with a bitter-sweet feeling.
Heidi is a 12 year-old girl with her 13th birthday coming up and she is living with her Mom with ‘a bum brain’ (as Heidi puts it). Her mother can only handle 23 words and she can only do things after a grueling, numerous number of repetitions, she is by no means capable of raising Heidi herself. She was like ‘a machine with broken parts,’ she just couldn’t function as a mother thus Heidi is literally raised by her neighbor, Bernadette. But she has her own issue, too – she’s been suffering from agoraphobia which prevents her from going outside. Even a small step outside the house will send her into a meltdown so Heidi has been taught everything she needs to know by Bernadette (she is very smart by the way; she used to love reading and go to library practically every day.)
There is one word that only her mother uses, “soof,” and this word starts to occupy Heidi’s mind; no one knows what it means and that makes Heidi more and more itching to know what it is.
One day, she finds an old camera buried in a drawer and decides to have the film developed. The photographs reveal that her mother might have lived in an institution named Hilltop Home, Liberty in New York.
Being anxious to know more about her mother and find an answer to a question, “who am I?,’ she determines to set out on a journey to discover her own identity – all by herself.
I picked up this book being on a huge middle-grade kick after ‘Wonder.‘
The first thing that I noticed was this book got a very similar vibe to my all-time favorite middle-grade book, Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life by Wendy Mass.
The overall feel each book delivers is of course slightly different, but the main plot where the protagonist embarks on a journey to find the truth felt very similar as far as I’m concerned and I liked them both a lot.
That being said though, I think this book is more hard-hitting; it’s more emotionally evocative and very compelling. Heidi’s emotions are well reflected in Sarah Weeks’ writing, it just hit me in the feels. I felt embarrassed and slightly humiliated when Heidi is accused of telling a lie (from a jealousy pang) and felt miserable and lost when a terrible thing happened to her on the way to Liberty. My mood was literally in sync with Heidi’s one; I felt exactly the same way she does in the story.
I think it owes to the brilliant characterization. All the characters are so well realized and felt like real people. In particular, Heidi’s strong, determined (probably a teeny bit fiery) character is well drawn, I even felt a bit frustrated by how pushy and forceful she is; she wouldn’t back down once she determines to do something. She can be pretty harsh and mean to others – even to Bernadette. Again, it’s so evocative and just strong.
What happens at Hilltop Home is gut-wrenching; it was like a sucker-punch for me.
If I were Heidi, I would be emotionally shattered and broken; I’d probably think, “did I come here all the way from Nevada only to find this?” Given what Heidi goes through, Heidi’s angst, her desperate want to know “who she is/ where she came from,” this truth must have been quite heart-breaking for her. She could have wished she hadn’t gone there in the first place.
This story felt more complex than I had imagined; it’s a great coming-of-age story but it also makes me wonder if we might want to keep the truth undisturbed at times; we might be happier if we stopped ourselves from getting down to the bottom of things when the ‘thing’ was not to be unravelled.
It wasn’t like that I had no issues with this book; there were a few points that I felt a bit far-fetched, but well-crafted main plot made up for them.
The ending, the very last sentence made me really wonder if Heidi is any happier than before she knows the truth; if she regrets what she did. I certainly hope not, but I can’t help reflecting on it.
Despite the undertone that implies a bright future in store for Heidi, I still felt a waft of poignancy in it.
With all that said, this is a beautiful, enthralling story of courage and love, and probably ‘hope.’ It’s well-written, really compelling, a wonderful book. I certainly recommend this.
I gave this book 4 (probably 4.5) out of 5 stars.