Lynne Rae Perkins’ Criss Cross, the 2006 Newbery Medal winner, is a novel about a group of teenagers in a small town called Seldem, and takes place in what seems to be the late seventies. The main characters are Debbie, Hector and Lenny, but there’s also Dan, whom Debbie likes and who is in Hector’s guitar class; Phil, who is friends with Lenny and Hector; Patty, who is Debbie’s friend; Rowanne, who is Hector’s sister; and Peter, who is the grandson of Mrs. Bruning, for whom Debbie works. Almost all of these characters know one another and are connected in ways it would take too long to describe. The small town dynamic social web is among the many things this novel gets exactly right and that suits so perfectly its themes of connecting and the force of coincidence and happenstance that shapes our lives. Here in Toronto or in any urban centre your hairdresser is only your hairdresser. In a small town your hairdresser is also your niece’s Sunday School teacher and her husband is your boyfriend or girlfriend’s older brother’s best friend. And those are only the connections you happen to know about.
There is no real plot. I’m not even going to bother being careful about not including a spoiler as I usually am. These characters move through their days and a series of ordinary events. Debbie loses a necklace, and it passes hands, gets lost again, and is finally returned to her. Hector takes up the guitar and writes songs that aren’t very good but that may or may not lead to better things. Debbie, Lenny and Phil hang out in Lenny’s father truck to listen to the radio on Saturday nights. Hector likes a girl named Meadow. Debbie gets her own room and pores over her mothers’ old photo albums and yearbooks. Inspired by a Mamas and Papas song, Hector decides he wants to take Meadow somewhere she's never been before, and goes in search of such a place in Seldem. Everybody hangs out at the Tastee-Freez. It sounds banal, and it is banal, and that’s the point. The reader has to sift the meaningful from the chaff just as the kids do.
I’ve never read a novel that captures and evokes the adolescent day-to-day experience better. Although perhaps I’m assuming my own particular experience of adolescence was more general than it really is. Do you remember the long, meandering conversations with your friends that seem so tedious now but that at the time were by turns so riotously funny and so exciting because you seemed to have gotten hold of some profound truth together? Do you remember wishing something would happen, and gazing forward into a future you couldn’t imagine because you didn’t know enough about what you wanted or what specifically would be possible, although everything seemed possible? Do you remember how mundane or everyday things like a casual hello from the school golden boy or girl, a project that involved hours of work for a result that wasn’t what you envisioned, or wearing pants of exactly the right length seemed to assume an incredible importance? Do you remember the half-assed life theories you explained to your friends, and the way you tested them, together or alone? Do you remember how sensory experiences like that afternoon spent reading and getting sunburnt in the backyard or eating junk food at the fair with you friends seemed to soak into your bones? Do you remember talking to a guy or a girl and how something almost seemed to happen? Do you remember the deepening of your friendships, how for the first time you became aware of others your age as more than just kids to play with? And can you trace a lifelong passion back to its nascent beginning during, say, an evening out with your older sister and her friends? Lynne Rae Perkins evidently does, and her Debbie, Hector and Lenny and all their friends will know what I mean in 20 years if they don’t now.
Yes, adults have meandering conversations, get consumed by trivia, feel sunlight on their skin, and know what it’s like to have new passions flower into being from overlooked germinations. But these experiences aren’t the same for an adult as they are for a teenager. Adults file and discard new impressions more readily. They’ve seen something of the kind before, they know more about what will be of use to them and where they’re going — or think they know — they’ve developed a psychic shell that repels some experience. For teenagers it’s all almost entirely new, they might use anything, they need to explore more, test more, ponder more, and laze around in the backyard or on their beds with a copy of Popular Mechanics or Wuthering Heights or Seventeen and process it all.
Reading this book felt less like reading than like looking at pictures someone had secretly taken of me and high school era friends and our small town. I looked at it all, half amazed, half not, and thought, yes, yes, that’s the way it was, I remember this, I recognize this, I know this. I just didn’t know that it could ever be documented so perfectly.