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Jim Carroll, 1998.
See permission.
The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

The Other Shepards by Adele Griffin. Hyperion, 1998. 218p
Library ed. ISBN 0-7868-2370-4   $15.49
Trade ed. ISBN 0-7868-0423-8   $14.95    Gr.6-9

Geneva and Holland Shepard are sisters living under the shadow of a tragedy that happened before they were born: eighteen years ago their three older siblings, two brothers and a sister, were killed in a car accident in the tropical island paradise that used to be the family's beloved refuge. Teenager Holland is an acute observer, and she tells the story of herself, her younger sister, Geneva, their parents, and their dead siblings with the unerring eye and passionate angst of an adolescent longing to break free of a smothering, inescapable past. In the character of Holland Shepard, Griffin offers readers a young narrator whose voice encompasses intense, poignant longing, employing language that touches the heart with its lyrical simplicity.

"The parents," as the girls refer to them, are emotionally and physically remote, isolated by and yet enamored of their inconsolable grief. Their mother "prefers air kisses and thank you notes: a look-but-don't-touch kind of politeness;" their father uses his gift for scientific objectivity to keep his daughters at a safe but observable distance. Sixth-grader Geneva dislikes being touched, and she has innumerable neuroses and compulsions that she uses to control her environment; Holland's quirks are less obvious, but no less compulsive-she makes deals with God and counts constantly in order to affect situational outcomes.

Griffin carefully constructs the barren spiritual landscape of the Shepard house, a house presided over by the portraits of two dead brothers and a sister, a household of inhabitants defined, imprisoned, and stunted by tragedy. Starving for the affection she believes her parents reserved for her dead siblings, Holland reacts with stomach-sinking horror when Geneva grimly says, after viewing slides from happier days, "I knew it. The parents used up all their love on them." The two sisters find solace only in each other. Holland explains it to her new boyfriend, Louis: "I'm a ghost story, too. . . . Whatever else Geneva and I are . . . has been swallowed up by our haunting. And you know the worst part? We never even knew them. We never shared their history. We live inside our very own haunted house, and we have no idea who the ghosts are."

When "Annie the painter" enters their lives to paint a mural on the Shepard kitchen wall, she brings a sense of creative chaos, an emotional broom, so to speak, to sweep away the cobwebs of tragedy and to free the two sisters from the tear-sodden bonds of the past. Annie denies the eternity of grief, declares "the parents" lucky to get a second chance at family with their youngest children, and says "it's better to concentrate on the living" instead of the dead. Annie energetically pushes the two sisters outside the emotional and physical boundaries set by their cautious parents; she shows the past to Holland and Geneva from a completely different perspective, charming and cajoling and exasperatedly shoving them along the healing road to redefinition of themselves, their dead siblings, and their parents.

Griffin's skill at revealing the depth of her characters through their actions shines here, and her ability to hold back just enough information without being coy will keep readers enthralled. The revelation that Annie is the redemptive spirit of the girls' dead older sister is so subtly and lovingly unfurled that it is totally believable within the context of the Shepards' claustrophobic world. Holland's narration is claustrophobic as well, concentrating from the outset on the circumscribed dynamics between herself and Geneva and between both girls and their parents. As Holland and Geneva begin to open both literal and figurative windows, Holland's narration expands to include other people and places-and feelings uncolored by her parents' unending grief.

There are moments of remarkable emotional clarity in Griffin's story. The relief when the girls finally embrace one another and their future is like the relief of being released from a locked room; the key is Holland's revelation that while her parents may be caught in the past, she and her sister are not: "I know the parents will not take down the portraits of the other Shepards any more than they will roll up the bottoms of their pants and grill hot dogs on our roof. They will continue to meet in the twilight kingdom of their dining room, and their grief is a feast of pain I cannot touch. But now I know I will not always sit at their table."

The other Shepards' sensational death is the tragic incident that will draw readers into a world subdued by unremitting sadness; just when the shadow of grief seems too dark to penetrate, Griffin's characters act to let in all the light the reader needs to see the clear, bright path of the sisters' deliverance.

Janice M. Del Negro, Editor

Big Picture Image
November's Bulletin cover illustration
by Jim Carroll from
The Other Shepards,
Copyright 1998. Used by
permission of Hyperion Books for Children



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