Allison's Book Bag

Waiting to Forget by Sheila Kelly Welch

Posted on: March 24, 2012

Waiting to Forget by Sheila Kelly Welch is only the third novel that I’ve read about foster children. The unflinching manner in which Welch writes about their tumultuous lives had me searching the internet for more fictional examples. By its end, Waiting to Forget also had me thinking about its unique but well-crafted style.

The lives of T.J. and his sister had been rather unpleasant before they came to live with foster parents Marlene and Dan. Waiting to Forget makes me think of The Pinballs by Betsy Byars and The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson. The main characters in both of those juvenile novels were cynical girls who had been taken from their parents and were now foster kids. (Does this mean that every foster kid’s parents are messed up? If not, someone needs to write a book to break that stereotype.) As for T.J. and Angela’s mom, well, she likes men and the night life. This might not be too bad if she knew how to pick men who would love her children and if she could hold a job that would allow her to afford the expenses of her two lives. It also might not be too bad if she could act patient with her children, but sadly she isn’t above hitting them. Welch doesn’t sugar-coat how dysfunctional the lives of foster children can be. And so again, for several chapters, I wasn’t sure that I liked this atypical approach. Yes, I have read novels with even more violence, but the majority of them are for young adults. When the fiction is for younger readers, such as the Harry Potter series, the stories are often cloaked in fantasy and so are more palatable. In Waiting to Forget, it is social services rather than wizards who try to save T.J. and Angela. And instead of a rescue from social services landing them in a magic school, it’s going to bounce them from one foster family to another. Yet fiction shouldn’t always amount to escapism. We badly need books that outright mirror the starker realities of life, because those bring reassurance that we aren’t alone and that we can endure.

The sadder the book, the greater the need for happy moments to break up the tension and to give us hope. Thankfully, Waiting to Forget has some. For example, when T.J. and Angela returned the first time from foster care, their mom surprised them with a Welcome Home party. She hangs streamers and brought a cake. T.J. thought it was the best party ever. Then there’s “the Angela language.” This is the term T.J. uses to describe how his sister sometimes mispronounces words: “It’s george’s!” means “It’s gorgeous!” And there’s how T.J. and Angela joke with one another. After one particularly hot day, T.J. holds up his bare toes and asks: “Who wants cooked toes for a snack?” Angela giggles and replies, “Cut one off and I’ll eat it.” Actually, the relationship between T.J. and his sister make for the best parts of the book. It’s their camaraderie that adds a little bit of a light touch.

A minor thing which stood out to me was the discrepancy between T.J.’s age and the description of his thoughts. T.J. used to own a watch until he accidentally broke it. While I can easily imagine a seventh-grader being this careless, T.J.’s thoughts seem immature: “Most of the kids in his seventh-grade class at Levinburgh Middle School have watches and cell phones too. They must be lots more responsible…. Probably they don’t ever take off their watches and leave them on the bedroom floor and then accidentally tramp on them, smashing the glass—or was it plastic?—and making the glowing numerals disappear.” Then again, this could be intentional choice on Welch’s part. After all, some of my students who have suffered the most family wrath often act far younger than the age.

A bigger thing that stood out to me was the narration. It starts out in present tense, whereas most juvenile fiction is told in the past tense. Writing a book in present tense provides a sense of immediacy: “T.J. sits, his head leaning to one side. His neck hurts.” On the flip side, the present tense creates a sense of objectivity and distance, which isn’t a tone I regularly find in children’s books. For the first several chapters I wasn’t sure that I even liked this atypical tone—especially when Welch starting switching between the present and past tense, in an attempt to weave back and forth between “Now” and “Then” –the uncertain past with a painful present. Eventually the style and the multiple flashbacks grew on me, but they did require some patience. As with the book Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, I found myself at times asking questions: Why did Welch start the story in the present at the hospital, where T.J. is waiting for his sister to wake up? Why not just set the story in the past, back when he and his younger sister Angela were living with their birth mother? I suppose the reason for the present tense could be to add drama to an otherwise comparably dull event of T.J. flipping through a photo album. And perhaps by encroaching it in the present, where T.J. is just sitting in a waiting room, Welch is making it easier for readers to stomach the brutal events of T.J.’s earlier life.

By this point, you may have figured out that while I think Waiting to Forget is a well-written and very realistic novel, I also found it an emotionally tough read. There are books I love and will reread. And then there are books that I’d glad to have experienced; I just don’t know if I could handle reading again. Old Yeller by Fred Gipson falls into that category. So does Good Wives by Louisa Mae Alcott. Now so does Waiting to Forget, due to its equally sad subject matter.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

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