Josiah's Reviews > Eight Keys

Eight Keys by Suzanne LaFleur
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's review
Jul 24, 2012

really liked it
Read from July 12 to 16, 2012

"A good friend is one of the hardest things to keep in this life. Don't forget that sometimes you have to work at it."

—Leonard, Eight Keys, P. 179

"But in life people come and go. We don't always have control over it. But we can control how we respond. We can keep going, keep living the best we can. We can love the people we have instead of shutting them out. We can do our best to get to know them in the time we have."

—Uncle Hugh, Eight Keys, P. 135

Suzanne LaFleur really is something. When Eight Keys was initially released it was only her second book in publication, but even with such a relatively small sample of her writing to reflect upon, I feel I can safely predict that one day a book of hers will bear a Newbery emblem. I don't know if it will be the Newbery Medal or an Honor, or maybe one of each, or possibly even multiples of each, but Suzanne LaFleur fits the mold of a Newbery author as well or better than any new novelist whose work I've encountered in the last twenty years, dating from the time of her literary debut. Personally, I would have given Love, Aubrey one of the four Newbery Honors for 2010, and I would have ranked Eight Keys right up there near the top of the list for the 2012 awards, if not actually "in the money." Suzanne LaFleur really gets poignancy, and that, combined with a tremendous amount of writing skill, does an awful lot to make one's writing memorable and meaningful. We remember with our emotions, and if sadness is one of the most powerful emotional experiences that a person will ever have, then it stands to reason that it is stories that touch on sad topics that will remain with us longest, and leave the most lasting impressions.

The sadness of Eight Keys flows from more than one source. Elise is an orphan, though she's lived with her Aunt Bessie and Uncle Hugh for as long as she can recall and has few solid memories of either of her parents. Her mother died as a direct result of the birthing process, and her father fell victim to cancer and passed away when Elise was just three years old. It's a good life that Elise, now eleven years of age, currently lives, though. Her aunt and uncle are present and loving, and treat her just as if she were their biological daughter. Elise has friends (well, really only one main friend, Franklin) and is basically happy in school, though she's a bit nervous about the transition to middle school this coming year. All of the area's elementary schools will be funneled into one big school now, and Elise isn't sure what it will be like to attend at the new place, especially considering that her only real friend is a boy. Franklin still acts much the same as he ever has, conjuring up games of the imagination to play with Elise, interested in the same juvenile activities that he and Elise have been into since they were much younger. Elise isn't sure how that will play in sixth grade, though, or how she might be viewed for having a friend like Franklin. When the other girls seem to scoff at Elise at first for her connection to Franklin, Elise instinctively puts up walls to keep him at bay, though in his kindness and understanding nature he ignores them, acting as if everything is the same as always between him and Elise. And as the story progresses, it is from this source, too, that sadness flows, as the gap in a once unbreakable friendship widens and Elise and Franklin grow farther apart, victims of a cliquish school system that often sees it as intolerably strange for a friendship outside of the norm to exist. Elise doesn't necessarily want to give up her friendship with Franklin; she's just not sure that she can keep it going anymore now that they're in middle school, especially when the teasing intensifies and a couple of girls at school fall into a regular pattern of mocking her for any reason they can find. So Franklin is the one left out, often not even realizing that he is being left out, as Elise tries to gain control of her school life and redefine her own personal boundaries of friendship and recreational interests.

Elise is having a rough time of it at school, for sure, but not so rough that she's not excited about her twelfth birthday anniversary. The final "surprise" of the day, as has been the case for most of her birthdays, is a new letter from her father, part of a series of letters that he wrote to her before he died, instructing that one be delivered to Elise each year on her birthday. It's a comforting ritual that Elise has been able to look forward to year after year, unwrapping a tiny new piece of her father's thoughts as if he were still right there with them, with secrets to be learned and shared. What makes this year more poignant for Elise than any other, however, is that the letter for her twelfth birthday is the final one that her father wrote, so it's the last year that she will hear from him.

There's nothing truly revelatory about the letter. A curious wording choice of her father's, though, sparks Elise's mind to a new idea about something she had been thinking about for a little while. There are eight doors on the second floor of her uncle's barn, eight doors that have been kept locked her entire life. Is it possible that these doors were meant for Elise, that she was supposed to find a way to open them to receive one final message from her father? Embarking on the kind of adventure that she imagined alongside Franklin a thousand times while they were growing up, Elise begins her search for keys that will open the eight locked doors, each time she opens one finding a message from her father that addresses some part of her life too complicated and too personal to be dealt with in a letter. There are things about life that one can't possibly ever explain, things that can only ever adequately be shown, by opening up the pages of one's own life and giving access to the images that made it what it was, the mixture of the bitter and the sweet, the darkness and the light that come together to form any life worth living. Elise's father has given just such a gift to his daughter, his final outreach to the child he would never see grow up and never get to know as a complex, developing human being. Elise's life at school and at home is growing more complicated by the day, but even nine years after her father spent his final day on earth, he still has a few things to tell her that could change the way she views her life. No one knows better than Elise how loss can swoop in and take what's dearest to you before you even come to the realization of how much it means to you. Blink your eyes once and your mother can be gone, blink once and your father can be, too, and blink again and years of friendship with a kind boy who has been at your side through all the ups and down has dissolved, as well, coming apart like soggy paper underneath water. What's good, what seems so stable that it could never be lost, could never even be threatened, can disappear so quickly, and that's part of what Elise's father wants to show her. But Franklin, unlike her father, is still here with Elise. He's still living just down the street within reach, and the play isn't over while the director still has the power to recast a role, to change the ending and make it what it should be. The film reel has ended for Elise's mother and father, but there's still time for Elise to come to know herself and what she wants from her own life, all while drawing closer to her father through the secrets of the doors and seeing that there's a lot more to the great big world out there than she might have known to look for on her own.

There's so much that resounds about Eight Keys that it's hard to know where to even start. I think of Elise's observation when thinking about Amanda and Caroline from school, the former a girl with a bewildering propensity for cruelty, and the latter, her goodnatured best friend: "Sometimes you are friends with someone just because you're used to it, and maybe you forget why it happened in the first place." Elise is coming to see that this is a lot like how things have become between her and Franklin, friends who sit together and talk with each other even if one party isn't really engaged in the relationship, just going through the motions because that's what they know. A friend can change with little notice and no apparent reason, and one is left to wonder what happened, and whether or not there's enough friendship left to be able to salvage the old connection. When does one count up the costs and finally decide that it's better just to let an old friendship die a natural death? A few moments after Elise has her thought about being friends with someone just because it's comfortable, she muses to herself, "Trying to figure out why things change is probably even harder than trying to figure out how they started." Elise is still trying to piece together her feelings about Franklin, and figure out how much teasing she's willing to take to stay his friend in their new middle-school world, and the decision isn't as easy as one might think. She's not even sure why things have changed between her and Franklin, or why it is, exactly, that in sixth grade it suddenly becomes laughable to play outside with one's friends and just have a good time, pure and simple. Can one be happy and popular at the same time in middle school?

One of the most meaningful passages in Eight Keys has to be the words of Uncle Hugh in describing to Elise the way that her father responded to all the adversity in his own life that came in such a short time, bombarding him with the death of his wife and the grave news that he was dying from cancer, all in a span of just three years. How easy it would have been for Elise's father to retreat from life, absorbed by the profundity of his own grief, but he would not take that way out of his problems. In the words of Uncle Hugh, to Elise: "when your mom died, your dad was so sad, he could have just become wrapped up in being sad, but he didn't; he chose to be a father to you. And when he got sick, he could have become wrapped up in being sick, but he chose to be a father to you. He chose to keep living, and he kept finding ways to show his love for you, no matter how hard things were." In the darkest hours of his life, Elise's father chose to live a lifestyle of love for his daughter, though the sadness he was experiencing must have been oppressive. Continuing to live, and to make new memories with little Elise, was a choice that her father made, and it couldn't have been an easy one. But it gave her the few memories that she still carries of her father, memories of a man who never let her go and continued to show his love for her in unique, meaningful ways a full decade after he had passed from this earth. No gift could ever have been greater, and her father's example definitively shows her that she, too, has the choice to live a life of caring and love, regardless of external circumstances. By making the choice to love even when it's hard, Elise could be giving a priceless gift to those around her, just as her father did for her.

On we go to Elise's observation about baby Ava, who along with her mother moves in with Elise and her aunt and uncle near the beginning of the book. On page one hundred forty-five, Elise is upset about the goings-on at school while she's holding Ava, crying as she hugs the tiny child close to her, and thinks: "She was the perfect size for holding. She couldn't ask me what was wrong or whether school had been good. She didn't react to the fact that I was crying as I held her against me. Babies cry all the time. Crying must not seem like a big deal to them. And she couldn't offer advice, so I wouldn't have to explain why the advice wouldn't work. Or admit that it was good advice and find the courage to go through with it. She just let me feel sad until I was done crying." In this paragraph, Elise articulates, even if only in her thoughts, so many of the reasons why a baby is such wonderful company. It's strange how people use the word "baby" as an insult, as some of the girls at Elise's school do to Franklin, when really a baby is one of the greatest, most coveted blessings a person could ever receive. We light up at the prospect of a new baby, excited and imagining what the new future is going to like with a baby to love and play with, even while still using the word as a term of derision in other matters. This, I'm convinced, is simply a matter of not thinking logically, because as Elise finds when she wants to pour out her sorrows, baby Ava is the ideal mate with whom to commiserate. You're not going to get a bunch of questions about why you're crying from a baby, just a little person to hold and hug and help you feel better as you sit together in (relative) silence. Together, that's a big part of the equation. Maybe being a baby isn't so bad, after all.

There are many other things to discuss, such as what Elise thinks when Uncle Hugh says that feeling safe and comfortable at school is more important than being cool: "How do you explain to your uncle that being cool and feeling safe and comfortable at school were really the same thing?" Or her internal response when he asks why she wasn't willing to open up to him sooner about her troubles at school with Amanda: "Why would I be expected to talk about something that made me look like such a loser? Why would I want to bring that feeling home?" Rather than talk in depth about those parts of the story, though, there's just one more thing that I really want to say. Franklin is one of the most likable, lovable characters that I've come across in a book in a very long time. Really, how can any reader help but love Franklin? He truly has the patience of Job, kindly tolerating the sudden parade of casual insults directed at him by Elise and not becoming angry even as her treatment of him continues to deteriorate. While Elise is in a really confused place, unsure of what she thinks about her friendship with Franklin, he is always, always, always there for her, even to the point of getting into big trouble himself. And this is Franklin, for goodness' sake, who never does anything to get in trouble, not committing even minor infractions. He's willing to put a lot on the line for Elise, though, even at a time when the way she acts toward him is none too friendly. It would be easy to come to the conclusion that she just doesn't appreciate him, but I think that would be too pat of an answer for their problems. Sometimes a real relationship requires one person to hold on tightly and refuse to be bucked off even when the ride gets wild, and that's what Franklin is doing for most of this book. There's a reason why he became friends with Elise, though. I think there's always a reason for a friendship, even if those observing from the outside don't know enough about the friends to be able to see it, but the people in the friendship know, and that's what keeps them together. Though things may be rough between them through much of Eight Keys, Elise and Franklin have a friendship that is worth sacrifice, and I know that I won't forget about Franklin for a long, long time. He'll probably end up becoming one of my all-time favorite characters in literature.

Suzanne LaFleur is definitely an author to watch. She writes much like a young Katherine Paterson, her feel for human emotions and the sensitive nature of relationships as keen as it comes. With Eight Keys, I think that the flower of her writing career may be just coming into full bloom, and I feel that she is likely to produce several all-time classics before her work is done. I recommend Eight Keys as one of the best books of 2011, and I would give it three and a half stars.

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Quotes Josiah Liked

Suzanne LaFleur
“But I remind myself that I know you. I know your heart, and that will always stay the same, so I will always know you...”
Suzanne LaFleur, Eight Keys

Suzanne LaFleur
“But in life people come and go. We don't always have control over it. But we can control how we respond. We can keep going, keep living the best we can. We can love the people we have instead of shutting them out. We can do our best to get to know them in the time we have.”
Suzanne LaFleur, Eight Keys

Suzanne LaFleur
“A good friend is one of the hardest things to keep in this life. Don't forget that sometimes you have to work at it.”
Suzanne LaFleur, Eight Keys

Suzanne LaFleur
“We have plenty of room for our lives, I mean. Especially the ones who make us be the people we want to be.”
Suzanne LaFleur, Eight Keys

Reading Progress

07/12/2012 page 3
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message 1: by Adriana (new) - added it

Adriana A four!? This has to be great.
I'm loving Franklin already (:

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