Monday, January 29, 2007

Review: The Big Shuffle

Imagine you're in college, at a frat party, when you hear your father has had a heart attack. Moreover, your mother is unresponsive and has been hospitalized. And, oh yeah, you have seven younger brothers and sisters living at home.

19-year-old Hallie Palmer faces just this situation one late fall evening, and she decides there's no choice but to head home and hold up the fort. It isn't easy. There's hardly any money in the checking account. Three of the children are still in diapers, two of them infant twins she can't tell apart. Her younger sister, Louise, wants no part in the homemaking and child-raising and absconds to Boston with a boyfriend at the age of 15. Her 12-year-old brother, Teddy, also causes problems by leaving school to hang out with mom at the mental institution.

Fortunately, Hallie isn't as alone as she feels. Her friends Gil and Bernard are there to help with food, help, and, eventually, a job. The pharmacist stops by to help with paperwork. The city snow removal guy digs out the driveway for free. When Hallie crashes and burns with a case of mono, Pastor Costello moves in and takes care of all the children and the house until Hallie can get better.

While the community is there to help, Hallie's old friends are scared off by her new life. Even her boyfriend, Craig, doesn't understand her reaction to his dropping out of college and takes up with another, more accommodating girl.

Laura Pedersen's The Big Shuffle is a warm-hearted, entertaining novel, with love and community at its core. It's populated with a variety of eccentric characters--like Uncle Lenny, a sailor who arrives for Hallie's father's funeral and stays for awhile entertaining the kids with gruesome tales of the sea--and is often quite funny. Take, for example, this passage in which Hallie describes arriving at the school to discuss, she thinks, Louise's delinquency:

  • "Though communism collapsed some time ago, the high school is ready to serve as the Kremlin West should bolshevism rise again. The dark cinder-block building manages to block out the sun and cast a shadow over anyone who dares to enter its steel-framed doors. The inmates all share the same sentence--four years with no time off for good behavior and no chance of probation." (p. 140)

Pedersen's style is relaxed here, the plot not dominant. Instead we are treated to entertaining circumstances, wacky children and characters, and a strong, compelling narrator in Hallie.

The Big Shuffle is a sequel to Beginner's Luck and Heart's Desire. And while there are references to Hallie's early cardshark life, it reads well as a stand-alone novel. (I should know--I haven't read Laura Pedersen's work before.) The Big Shuffle has some light sexuality and is best suited for children ages 14 and up.