One for the Murphys
Author: Lynda Mullaly Hunt
Publisher: Puffin Books
Published: May 2012
Lexile Level: 520L
One for the Murphys tells the story of a girl named Carly, as she is put into foster care after being beaten by her stepfather. She is placed with the Murphy family, a first-time foster family with three boys of their own. The change catches Carly off-guard, as she struggles to understand this normal, happy family dynamic. The book follows Carly trying to adjust to her new life, while dealing with the aftermath of her abuse.
The majority of this book is amazing. It seems to accurately capture what the foster care experience would be like from the child’s perspective. One early line that is particularly haunting is how Carly starts out expecting her foster care experience to be horrible–that she’s “seen the movies and TV shows” and therefore knows that foster parents are greedy and mean. It really made me realize just how few positive portrayals of foster care there are in the media–and the impact that has on children in foster care.
Carly is a fantastic and heart-wrenching narrator. She is incredibly witty, and I’ll admit, I’m a sucker for a good child protagonist. The characters are interesting, and you feel for those involved in the struggle. Mrs. Murphy genuinely wants to help Carly, and Carly is dealing with very real feelings of not knowing what she wants–and the guilt that comes along with wanting to be with someone who is not her mother.
However, there is a big problem with this book–and here, I’ll have to get into spoiler territory. I usually try to avoid them, but I feel this is too big an issue to ignore.
First, it’s important to remember who this book is written for. My library classifies it as a Juvenile book. I would say it is for late elementary through middle school ages. Second, who is likely to pick this book up? A lot of kids, sure, but I imagine those in foster care or abusive situations themselves would be drawn to it.
So let’s look at the ultimate message of this book: It doesn’t matter if someone hurts you–if they do something nice, that makes up for it.
This is an incredibly dangerous message, and it plays on one of the major tactics that abusers use, and the mindset that keeps many victims from seeking help. That because life is good sometimes, the abuse doesn’t matter.
Throughout the entire book, we see hints that Carly’s mother was always, at the very least, neglectful and emotionally abusive. In the first two meetings when Carly is allowed to see her, she says hurtful and emotionally abusive things, even going so far as to say that she doesn’t want Carly anymore. She helped hold Carly down so that her stepfather could beat her. But at the end of the book, all of this is magically hand-waved away. Why?
Because her mother “changed her mind” and tried to stop Dennis when he started to go too far in his punishment. She risked her life to stop him–and that PROVES that she loves Carly. The book also implies that this means Carly should love and want her.
Bad enough that the mother is getting out of this scott-free, with no criminal charges (supposedly in exchange for her testimony against the stepfather, and he has said that she wasn’t involved) but no one is taking any of the previous history into account. No one talks to Carly about what she wants–we see her social worker all of two times in the entire book. But worse is the message that Mrs. Murphy and the other adults are giving Carly–that because her mother supposedly risked her life for her, that this means that her mother loves her unconditionally, and that Carly should appreciate that.
Think about the message this sends to children in potentially dangerous situations. This tells them that “it’s okay mom/dad hit me, because they were nice this other time.” It tells them that an act of kindness balances out an act of abuse. That one can mark out the other. And that is incredibly dangerous.
I can forgive this book for a lot. Some of the characters are underdeveloped–but it’s a kid’s book, and there isn’t room for every side character to get a lot of development. Several of the characters are good, so I can overlook that. I can forgive that we don’t get into the legal side of Carly’s case–again, it’s a kid’s book. 90% of this book was great. It was a positive portrayal of foster families, and we don’t get enough of that.
Maybe the author thought it would be too cliche for Carly to get adopted by the Murphys. But her ending just makes me sad. Because with everything that we’ve been shown of her mother, what are the odds that this woman will change? Carly is going back to a life of stealing from Salvation Army boxes and being told that crying makes you a sucker. And in a year when her mother has forgotten what a horrible man Dennis was, she’ll find some other worthless abusive asshole, and the cycle starts over.
I have other issues with this book, but they are discussed far more eloquently and with more authority than I can give them by Goodreads reviewer Shelley. I highly recommend that you check out her review here. She is a social worker, which gives her review a bit of extra weight (in my opinion).
Final thoughts: this is a good book on the surface, but the final implications are terrifying. Don’t give this to a kid who has dealt with abusive situations if you don’t want to confuse them and send them the wrong message. If I were to recommend this book to anyone, it would be to potential foster parents, just to give them some perspective. But even then, it’s problematic.
Rating: 3 out of 5
Trigger Warnings: Child abuse