The Plot: With great reluctance, fifteen year old Kelly Louise and her mother are leaving Des Moines for her mother’s hometown of Heaven, Ohio.
Kelly Louise — named for Tina Louise, of Gilligan’s Island fame — tells of being dragged back to the small town her teen mother escaped from years ago, to live with her cleaning-obsessed Nana and religion-obsessed cousin Natalie. Natalie, fifteen, loves unicorns and Jesus equally. Her mother promises it’s just a temporary move, but it’s the middle of the school year! Why is her mother doing this to her? Doesn’t her mother realize that it’s going to make it that much harder for Kelly Louise to get a boyfriend?
The Good: Kelly Louise tells this story; and her voice makes this fresh and different; she’s funny and amusing, self-centered and a drama queen, and, like Lola from Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen and Alice from Alice, I Think, you’re going to alternate between cringing, laughing, and loving Kelly Louise. She’s a riot; at times delusional, as she convinces herself that her big-city ways (high heeled boots and beret) will make all the the boys think “hot new girl at school!” Instead, they look at her and think “strange girl.”
Here is Kelly Louise talking about a conversation with her mother: “I asked questions about Mom’s happy golden teenagehood. Sometimes you have to bolster a single parent by taking an interest in what they seem to want to go on about.”
Don’t let Kelly Louise fool you: her story may be told funny but it is serious, because Heaven is best known for the recent news story about Baby Grace, an infant abandoned in a cornfield.
Dutton’s story of the unthinkable — a baby left to die — is told against a setting of lost family farms, alcoholism, and second generations of teen pregnancies. Single parents raising kids. Kelly Louise’s voice brings humor, and she thinks of herself, first, most of the time. But she also thinks about Baby Grace, and family secrets, and what it means to do the right thing.
Kelly Louise is discovering the reality of Heaven — neighborly and small town cute, while lost and struggling. People who can be both caring and cold. And, always, family secrets. Look back to that quote of Kelly Louise, seemingly indulging her mother about a past “happy golden teenagehood,” and remember that it ended with a teen pregnancy, single parenthood, and a lifetime of economic struggling. This is the beauty of Stranded: dead seriousness wrapped up in humor.
Kelly Louise’s mother got pregnant when she was barely older than her daughter is now. Aunt Denise, cousin Natalie’s mother, is an abusive alcoholic who lost custody of her daughter to her mother, Nana. Their grandfather, dead for ten years, was an alcoholic who lost the family farm. Kelly Louise doesn’t know who her father is; Natalie’s father is never mentioned. The family stories of others in Heaven aren’t too different.
By page 45, Kelly Louise’s mother tells her the truth. Natalie, of Church youth group and virginity pledges, got pregnant, hid the pregnancy, and gave birth to Baby Grace. Kelly Louise’s mother tells her, “we have to pretend this never happened.” Kelly Louise veers between denial and continuing her life (trying to make friends, flirting with boys) and not quite believing that Natalie has done this and will be getting away with it.
Kelly Louise is stranded in Heaven; and so are others, stranded both physically but also emotionally, by desperation and secrets and the walls that such secrets make. Kelly Louise may view things selfishly, she may be over-obsessed with getting a boy and having sex, she may be self-obsessed and funny, but she also has a true heart and a belief in the truth.
This is a working class world, far different from the middle class suburbs of Lola and Alice and the typical young adult book that has a Kelly Louise narrator. Kelly Louise’s single mother struggles to pay the rent and at first Kelly Louise believes their return to Heaven is financially based. On page 229, Kelly Louise observes the class bad boy: “He was wearing a plaid shirt that made him look more like a farm kid than an asshole. In an earlier generation, and one before large, industrialized harvesting methods nudged the family farms out, he would have been one. Me, too, probably.”
And so, there is the bad boy, being raised by a meth-dealing uncle; Kelly Louise and Natalie, who have the possible inheritance of alcoholism and teen pregnancy; other teens, whose main concerns are parties, music, and escaping by religious fervor or drunken binges (or both).
Why should their stories only be told in darkness or dreariness? Why not have a Kelly Louise tell it, the way she sees it, with humor and laughter and caring?