Monday, June 22, 2009

Review: If the Witness Lied

If the Witness Lied
Caroline B. Cooney
2009; Delacorte Books; 978-0-385-73448-6 (hardcover)

Summary: The Fountain children have no desire to be on television ever again. They've been caught by cameras too many times. It started when their mother chose her unborn baby over chemotherapy to treat her cancer. Then there was her funeral. The worst of all was their father's funeral two years later, after he died in an accident: an accident thought caused by their little brother. Ever since then, Jack has tried to protect his little brother Tris, to let him be a normal boy. His sisters Madison and Smithy might have deserted him, leaving the brothers with their stepaunt Cheryl, but Jack will be a good brother. So when he finds out that Cheryl wants to create a television show around Tris, Jack refuses to let that happen. Suddenly, questions about the day their father die start occurring to the siblings. What if the death wasn't an accident? What if Tris is blameless? What if Cheryl, the only witness, lied?

Four Things to Know About If the Witness Lied

#1: We see what we want to see.

Many of the adults who knew the Fountain children let themselves be persuaded by Cheryl's deceptions. The family minister, old friends, even the children's grandparents--they all accept what Cheryl tells them. Many of these people are too ready to see Cheryl as a deliverance: she will take care of the chidlren, manage things so that the four children can stay together in the same house. No one wants to look too closely at a family dealing with grief, because it's too personal, too intimate a sight. Whatever small misgivings these adults had, they thought the family should handle the situation in their own way. We all feel a need not to intrude, especially during great tragedy. That reticence nearly risked the wellbeing of Tris and his siblings. Fortunately, in the nick fo time, the Fountain grandparents are alerted and can save the day.

#2: Any family has a chance for reunion.

The events of If the Witness Lied begin to unspool as a result of each teenage Fountain remembering their father's birthday. It's the first birthday since his dead, and it serves as a wake-up call for the Fountain sisters: running from their brothers, from each other, from the only family they have left, is wrong. Both Madison and Smithy return home, arriving precisely when Jack and Tris need them. During the course of the novel, there isn't enough time to heal all the cracks in their relationship. But by coming together to protect Tris, the Fountains are able to reform themselves into a new family unit. What's more, they are able to expand family to mean anyone who cares for them, anyone who wants to protect Tris. So both existing family members, like their grandparents, and family friends like neighbor Diana, are drawn into the Fountain family.

#3: A mystery is solved by the most insignificant of details.

Everyone thought that Mr. Fountain's death was a horrible accident: he left his car running with the parking brake set, while he got out of the car and went underneath it. Then, Tris climbed out of his car seat, into the front seat, and knocked off the parking brake. This story starts to unravel when Madison realizes that she can barely release the parking brake on the same kind of car that her father had. And if she couldn't do it, how could a toddler like Tris? At first, Madison thinks she's clutching at straws, doing a bit of wishful thinking. Yet it's enough to get her really thinking. The only word they have for the sequence of events is Cheryl's. And there's just something about Cheryl--something that has made all the Fountains subconciously distrust her since she arrived after their mother's death. Slowly, bit by bit, the Foutnains start to figure out what really happened. And it's both too horrible for words . . . and makes perfect sense.

#4: Grief and faith go hand in hand.

The Fountains had been a religious, church-going family before the death of their mother. Afterwards, especially after the death of their father, the Foutnains drifted away from religion. Smithy hated the God that took her mother but allowed Cheryl to live. Madision couldn't remain the laughing, popular leader of her church youth group, pulling away from her friends and the Church. And Jack focused himself on school and Tris. But when the three siblings start to realize what Cheryl did and how they ran from their grief, they all find that their faith gives them strength and hope. By speaking to God again, praying and asking for help, the Fountains were able to find that help from several sources in their lives. Perhaps that explains the cover illustration: faith is like a candle in the darkness.

A gripping page-turner, If the Witness Lied is a perfect example of a YA thriller. From the slowly unfolding solution to the final confrontation, the reader is not given a chance to breath. What's more, the teenage characters act like teens, making mistakes and trying to act rationally as best they can. Adding richness to the story is the different ways Jack, Madison and Smithy dealt with and still deal with the death of their parents. Caroline B. Cooney crafts a thrill ride of a book and a sensitive study of loss and recovery, all in the same novel. Pass this one to teens who are fans of sad stories or families in peril.

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