Books for young readers are often concerned with children who have to make their own way, whether through enchanted forests, city slums, high seas, or suburban anxieties. Making one's way without one's parents -- either temporarily or permanently -- is a source of fright for children, and a source of adventure. It is also a necessary part of growing up, a hard part to be sure , but one well worth writing and reading about.
"A Star for the Latecomer" is the story of Brooke Hillary, forced by her mother's illness to deal with this circumstance. Brooke, a senior in a high school for those in the performing arts, is studying to become a dancer. She is doing so partly because it pleases her mother and she must reckon with the mixture of her motives as well as with the difficulties of her profession.
This novel has a raw and considerable strength in its picture of mother and daughter. The difficulties Brooke faces make her freshly regard her wish to dance; they drive her to achieve a success for her mother and to question her desire to do so. Insofar as the book concerns itself with these issues, it is effective. However, its portrayal of the Hillary family, especially of brother and father, is dim. It seems that so much energy has gone into the creation of the central relationship that the authors had no spirit left for the others involved.
"The Masquerade" is primarily -- and beautifully -- concerned with a family in toto, one that loses its father via the middle-class crime of embezzlement, and its mother as a result of her emotional breakdown over her husband's imprisonment. But this story isn't about the unhappiness of the parents's temporary withdrawal. It deals with the ways in which the children struggle with, perceive, and survive their parents' absence.
As a result of this fruitful angle, Susan Shreve has given herself the range to delineate a variety of feelings on the part of those who have been abandoned, and this variety allows her characters to be angry, self-pitying, destructive, sarcastic, compassionate, sweet, and funny with regard to themselves and to their misfortune. The Walker kids are viewed by their creator with much the same cool and affectionate eye as that with which they view one another.
They range in age from Eliza, who is 7, to Eric, who is 23, including Sarah and Rebecca in between, and the most vivid quality of "The Masquerade" is the way in which Shreve allows each of the children to have his or her moment in the center of the drama. Each experiences crisis and despair and a lack of control. Each also achieves a role of leadership and courage. The brief scenes often depict these people doing ordinary things in the midst of their extraordinary plight.
Such homely, lively glimpses of who they are and of their stress has the cumulative effect of making a wonderful picture of this family: a fluid, witty, sensitive picture. "The Masquerade" is that rare item, a book that portrays childhood so well that children will relate to it directly, and adults will remember it immediately.