Monday, July 23, 2012

Janie Johnson

After finishing the somewhat iconic Face On the Milk Carton, I'm just wrapping up the sequel (there are actually THREE sequels!), Caroline B. Cooney's Whatever Happened to Janie?  It feels really silly to give it a deep and thoughtful analysis, since it's a late-'80s after school special of a book, but there are some really interesting aspects of it.

I often have trouble with old YA books, wondering if they feel dated to me because 1990 was such a different time, or because 14 was such a different age.  This is a good example of that feeling, for a lot of reasons.  One very basic one--Janie spends a little while being shocked that people go on talk shows and discuss their most personal feelings, say things that will break their loved ones' hearts.  Everyone in this book is keeping silent--no one is saying what they feel, putting it out there for others to react to, even though everyone's feelings are obvious.  Is that how people used to be in the '90s?  Or is that something a modern 14 year old might still wonder?

Really, most of the mysteries of this book are about people not discussing their feelings.  Sure, I don't expect the teenaged characters to have much understanding or appropriate expectations of what happens when a teenager is reunited with a birth family that she never knew existed.  But the adults seem bewildered, too.  Was there every any adult who thought that taking a previously happy teenager out of her home and delivering her to a different family--however entitled that original family is--and insisting she cut off all contact with everyone--friends, boyfriend, parents--is going to make everything go much more smoothly?  Or is this a sketchily thought out plot point? 

What this book has me thinking about a lot is actually adoption.  There are a lot of issues of identity here that are the same as the ones present in thinking about adoption--what makes someone a parent?  What feelings are "supposed" to be there for a biological family you've never met?  What do you owe someone who's been through a lot emotionally on your behalf, without your input?  What does it matter who your genes come from, and what does it mean to be part of a family? 

And this book seems to get all those answers wrong.  I mean, in the end it comes around to them, but nobody in this book seems to feel on any level that the bonds of parent and child have anything to do with a lifetime spent parenting the child.  Not that the suffering of Janie's birth family should be dismissed, or their needs tossed aside, but that they don't trump everything. 

Even the end, where (spoiler!) Janie decides to go back to her "real," raised-her family doesn't feel quite right, because when she chooses this, there's no sense of the importance of this new tie, no sense that the new bonds might matter, too.  It's tough because the situation is so traumatic, I can imagine it playing out this way in real life--just get me home, forget you people.  But when Janie gets letters from her new family and sees them in her own behavior...well, it just made me wonder why so much of the book is spent negotiating the practicalities, but none on emotional compromise.

Anyway, this is way more thought than the book really entailed.  As I said, an after school special.  If you ever get a chance to see the made for TV movie starring Life Goes On's Kellie Martin, do.  If you like made for TV movies, you'll get the full book experience.

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