As children, we all had times when we would wish we were out living life on our own. Out on the streets, no one tells you when to go to bed, to clean your room, that you have to wash your hair and not just get it wet, to eat those Lima beans. Heather O’Neill takes that dream, one she actually lived as a child, and puts it into her first book.

Lullabies for Little Criminals takes place in Montreal, a Montreal which, O’Neill writes, exists only in dreams of the late Seventies. The main character is Baby, the thirteen year old daughter of Jules, a thoroughly lovable and kind hearted heroin addict. Baby and Jules run from debt collectors and carry all they own in two suitcases, hers mostly full of dolls. Her talent is telling stories, surviving on the sometimes mean streets, and enjoying even the smallest shards of happiness which slide her way. Jules kicks that habit, comes back again, goes into rehab for months, goes to jail, comes out clean, and goes back to rehab. Baby stays with the neighbors and plays her way through the seedy downtown areas, so vividly portrayed that one can see the old brick buildings, the tattered posters on lampposts and the scraps blowing down the sidewalk. It is on one of those trips that she meets a pimp who lives in the oldest hotel downtown. As he meets her after school for ice cream and buys her presents, she begins to focus on his dynamic side and ignore the leeching effect he has on all his other girls. She becomes one of his many girlfriends, and eventually, one of his prostitutes while just barely into her teenage years. Baby finds herself wrapped up in the most entangling dilemma of her life without a single soul to turn to for direction.

The subject of the novel is certainly very bleak. But the beautiful phrases and word pictures O’Neill uses are so powerful that the reader finds that they are caught up in the words to the point that the fact that they are describing Jules coming down from a high or Baby crying on a bathroom floor simply fades away. Not much is imaginable that could redeem the subject material of this book and make it worth the time to read, but O’Neill somehow finds that literary redemption. Not only that, but she delivers you in the process, having passed through the furnace of this childhood by proxy.

Lullabies for Little Criminals is a second Lolita, the great American novel written this time by not a Russian, but a Canadian. As a first outing, O’Neill is impeccable. This books reads with not only the youth of the author, but also the experience of age.

Deciding to review this book was a hard decision. Heather O’Neill is no Beverly Lewis. But the purpose of this article has never been to play it safe in the area of literature. These are books which deal with important issues and are also near flawless works of art. Most books seen here can stand alone in either of those categories. It is that they stand so firmly in both that makes them worth the notice. These are not typical books read at Crown, not Ted Dekker or Tim Lahaye. But variety is the spice or life, and WASP or not, most people in this general area could use some spicing up.

The issues touched on in this book are important and pervasive ones. They are also issues Christians traditionally feel ill at ease around. That’s fine. Being uncomfortable around sex, drugs, and unfortunate social arrangements is one thing. Completely ignoring them is another.

When Jesus was here on Earth, the people he spent time with were the rejects of life. The whores, the winos, the pimps, the strung-out. The hopeless. Most of us would not feel comfortable following Christ that far. That is a problem in and of itself. If we won’t eat with them, the least we could do is read about them. If it’s not too much trouble.

Available at Amazon.

Nathaniel Jonet

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