Traumatized by past neglect at the hands of an alcoholic parent, an “almost-sixth-grader” faces her phobia of being alone after her elderly friend is injured.
Tash resents that she has to go to camp while her loving great-uncle and custodian, Kevin, goes to New Zealand. She’d rather stay with her whimsical elderly neighbor, Cap’n Jackie, and hear her stories. Isolated by agoraphobia and grief, Cap’n Jackie retreats into a fantasy while Tash is away: An old key summons a magical dragon/dolphin and the spirits of her cat, Mulligan, and her partner, Vanessa. Tash had angrily thrown the key at Cap’n Jackie before leaving, a gesture with greater consequences than she realizes. While Tash is at camp, the friends’ brief handwritten correspondence reveals their mutual quick tempers as well as their bond. When Tash returns, she learns that Cap’n Jackie has been admitted to a rehab facility after breaking her hip—and, it seems, her spirit. Tash vows to find the key and make amends, not realizing that her solo mission is preparing her for being alone in a different way. (Readers, however, may notice some heavy foreshadowing.) Though her affection for Tash is clear, Cap’n Jackie herself is little more than a lonely old person—feistiness notwithstanding—whose ultimate function is to help Tash learn a life lesson or two. But Tash’s volatile emotions and Kevin’s gentle steadiness ring true, adding dimension to the tear-jerking trope. The book seems to adhere to the white default.
A bittersweet but hopeful take on loss, trauma, and the many meanings of family. (Fiction. 9-12)