When She Was Bad . . . Review of Chime by Franny Billingsley

Not since The Great Gilly Hopkins have I met a character as nicely nasty and wholly lovable as Briony Larkin from Franny Billingsley‘s new novel Chime.

Summary: In the early 20th century in Swampsea, 17-year-old Briony, who can see the spirits that haunt the marshes around their town, feels responsible for her twin sister’s horrible injury until a young man enters their lives and exposes secrets that even Briony does not know about. Before Briony’s stepmother died, she made sure Briony blamed herself for all the family’s hardships. Now Briony has worn her guilt for so long it’s become a second skin. She often escapes to the swamp, where she tells stories to the Old Ones, the spirits who haunt the marshes. But only witches can see the Old Ones, and in her village, witches are sentenced to death. Briony lives in fear her secret will be found out, even as she believes she deserves the worst kind of punishment.

Then Eldric comes along with his golden lion eyes and mane of tawny hair. He’s as natural as the sun, and treats her as if she’s extraordinary. And everything starts to change. As many secrets as Briony has been holding, there are secrets even she doesn’t know.

Review: Intriguing, yes? But why, for the purposes of this blog, do I care?

I loved this book. Since I devoured The Folk Keeper by Franny 12 years ago, I expected to love this book. But I wanted to review Chime here because I think it has the potential to really touch the lives of troubled kids–especially those who have been emotionally abused or neglected.

Like Katherine Patterson’s Gilly Hopkins, Briony is a prickly character. She is cold and stand-off-ish and most emphatically does not want people to come close to her. I really appreciate this about both characters and it’s a truth about lots of kids–particularly kids who have been abused and tossed back and forth from place to place (see Victoria Sammartino’s poem “Youth Work“). The truth is that kids who have been hurt often do have “nasty dispositions” as a result. They test the people who want to be close to them, they push you away, they act like they can take care of the entire world, sometimes they rant and rage as they have seen their caretakers rant and rage, sometimes they rant and rage because they have so much pain bottled up inside that they don’t know what else to do but rant and rage.

Not that Briony rants and rages. But she isn’t “nice.” And this is refreshing. There aren’t enough main characters in YA fiction who aren’t “nice.” (Says I.)

But Billingsley goes beyond just creating a not-“nice” character in a compelling situation. The first person narrative really allows the reader to get inside Briony’s head to understand both why she is the way she is and that she may not be “nice” but she is certainly lovable. And she does that better than, dare I say, even Paterson.

SLIGHT SPOILER ALERT: I don’t want to give away the book for anyone, but I do want to look at how this book can help certain kids. See, Briony thinks, basically, that she’s evil. Why does she think this? Because her stepmother has told her so. (OK, her stepmother has told her that Briony is a “witch” which amounts to the same thing here.) Now this is a fairly classic case of emotional abuse. Emotionally abusive parents often tell their children lies about themselves, especially lies that target the child’s sense of self-worth and innate lovability.  Why, I’m not sure. I think my Mom said things like this to me because she felt inadequate and needed to believe that at least she was better than me. But that’s speculation. Really, who knows why, but unfortunately it happens. (And where is her father, while this abuse is happening? He’s gone, he’s left the children completely to his wife’s care–unfortunately when one parent abuses, the other often neglects.)

But the result for Briony, as it is for many children–me included–is that we believe the lies. We believe that we are evil. We believe that we don’t deserve to be loved. Why? Because we love our parents, we need our parents, and because to children, parents are like Gods–we have no reason to question them and it would not be safe, in many cases, to do so. What a hit to a child’s self-esteem and ability to develop meaningful, healthy relationships! But the beauty of Briony’s story is that over the course of the book, the reader, as well as Briony herself, learns that her Stepmothers’ lie is just that. Imagine being a child who has been told she is evil (she is a “witch,” she has a “mean streak” . . .) and seeing this same lie exposed as false? Even if the child in question doesn’t immediately throw off the title for herself, reading this book would at least introduce the child to the possibility that she’s been lied to about herself. And that is a great and wonderful thing.

And then said child can see that Briony is, in fact, quite likable–she boxes and runs wild as the “wolfgirl” in the bog. She is, as well, quite lovable–she patiently cares for her sister, her sister who loves her, she saves the bog children, she loves Tiddy Rex. Perhaps after realizing that parents can lie, the child who reads this book will notice that kids who aren’t always “nice” are also worth loving. And that is a great and wonderful thing.

I think that every library should have this book. And that we need many many many more with these same themes.


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About pamwatts

Writer, Reader, and Children's advocate
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7 Responses to When She Was Bad . . . Review of Chime by Franny Billingsley

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