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Worth the Candle
Eleven-year-old Cal Lavender and the other girls who live in foster care with the Knitting Lady keep their own company. But on one occasion in What I Call Life, they encounter another group of girls who are honestly, though not tactfully, curious about their mismatched sorority: "You [all] live in that orange house. And you're always together, but you can't be sisters or cousins, right? . . . And you're all the same age, so you can't be sisters." Friends isn't an answer they accept either. "Friends don't live in the same house."
Later Cal asks the Knitting Lady for an answer: "What are we?" Her reply, delivered, without a nanosecond's hesitation, is, "A tribe."
Jill Wolfson tells an involving, entertaining story in her debut novel, and more than that she tells the cultural history of a tribe. As a journalist who'd written extensively about child custody and the juvenile justice system, she'd spotted a need. African-American children knew black history; children of ethnic groups learned about their roots. But foster children suffered not only the aloneness of their personal circumstances, but also the loneliness of not knowing that others had gone before.
The Knitting Lady, one of the most unforgettable characters of the past decade, makes a home where tweens who have been neglected and abused get some breathing space and a chance to thrive. Cal, who's been wound tighter than a watchspring by years with her manic-depressive mother, starts to unclench. Whitney, a Tigger of a girl who's been bounced around since her medically fragile infancy, begins to step away from a fantasy that has worn out its usefulness. Amber, nearly mute and with an appearance ravaged by her hair-pulling trichotillomania, grows with natural grace into a hard-won emotional maturity. Each of their lives (and Monica's, and Fern's) is changed for the better by the Knitting Lady, a tribal elder who stutters but tells stories from a history in which life blooms in the rockiest of circumstances.
Wolfson, the editor of Bay Area Parent, followed her debut with a Home, and Other Big, Fat Lies, in which city-bred Whitney is fostered in the logging country of Northern California. The end of March will bring out her third book, Cold Hands, Warm Heart, about a teen who needs a heart transplant and the family of the luckless gymnast who provides it.
Full disclosure: Wolfson is a friend of the Candlepicker's, but obligation has never been a reason to read her work. Insight, wisdom and eloquence are.