Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Review of Leo and the Lesser Lion by Sandra Forrester

Forrester, Sandra. Leo and the Lesser Lion. Knopf, 2009.

We learn right away in a prologue that something terrible has happened to 12-year-old Bayliss' 14-year-old brother Leo. Argh, another story in which a family member dies! I just finished A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore and have just started Love, Aubrey by Suzanne LaFleur and the grief can be hard to take.

While Leo and the Lesser Lion, set during the Depression, certainly explores the grief felt by Bayliss, it focuses more on the gap left in her life by a brother who was also her best buddy and partner in crime. Was there a reason Leo died but Bayliss was spared, terribly wounded though she was? Bayliss suspects there must be, and tries to find it in doing Good Works for the nuns, as out of character as her friends and family think this is. However, when two young sisters temporarily move into Leo's old room after their father abandons them at an overcrowded children's Home, Bayliss must stop helping the nuns out and help look after the girls instead. Resentful of their intrusion and rubbed the wrong way by the unfriendly pugnacity of the older girl, Bayliss doesn't realize until it's almost too late that these girls have helped to patch a hole in her family and in herself.

Bayliss' relationship with her brother is depicted with finesse; it's clear that, in his affection for his little sis and his warm heart, he is a cut above the average 14-year-old boy, and yet his penchant for mischief makes him seem real. Bayliss idealizes him, and who can blame her? In the blaze of their friendship, their 15-year-old sister, constantly helping around the house, fades into the background - it takes Bayliss a long time to see her as something other than a nagging bother and when she does, it's a sweet little revelation. Bayliss' reaction to the two sisters is also extremely realistic; while she is never rude to them and in fact tries to do the right thing in a lukewarm sort of way, her unwillingness and distress keep showing.

The only false note in the book came at the end, when there is a big emotional family showdown, during which the family's unspoken emotions about Leo's death finally come out. The scene is a bit stagy or artificial - I couldn't believe in it, quite. Oh, and the 5-year-old sister consistently sounded much too old for her years. However, those are small quibbles - I quite enjoyed this slice of Alabama life in the 30s.

Readers who can get past the rather dull and uninspired jacket art (I was certain that the depicted child must be a boy named Leo, not a girl named Bayliss) will find a touching and often funny story. Recommended for grades 4 to 6.

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