There is a fragility and a terror that surrounds all childhood. Yet, at the same time, there is a security in the naivety of children. When you’re a child, the only life you know is the one you live and so it can take years to realize the dangers you’ve been through. As trite as it may sound, in her first novel, Heather O’Neill captures the innocence of childhood. Not a stylized, whitewashed version but the real, dirty details that can make up a child’s life. Lullabies for Little Criminals (Harper Perennial, 2006) doesn’t shy away from the grit of real life – the grit that too often accompanies children but O’Neill does beautifully capture the magic of childhood, the magic of everyday objects and the significance they can carry for children.
Our narrator and main character is Baby (her real name). Baby and her dad, Jules, live in a rough part of inner-city Montreal. Of course, Baby never describes it this way. Montreal is her city and this is her neighbourhood, the only home she knows. She loves it. She knows the people on the street and the way things work. She knows her father does heroin and she knows Jules isn’t quite like other dads, mostly because he’s only fifteen years older than her, but they adore each other and Baby seems to love her life.
We follow her through most of her twelfth year and as she turns thirteen. When Jules goes into the hospital with a form of TB, Baby goes into foster care and the bond between them begins to weaken. In many ways, the book is equally about Jules’ childhood- one lost when he became a father and Baby’s mother died. It’s obvious to the reader that Jules is woefully unequipped to be a father. Of course, Baby neither knows that or cares. He is her father. This is her life and she is not unhappy.
The descriptions of the novel are absolutely spot-on. Baby describes the world she sees around her and, while a more cynical reader knows she’s describing skid row, O’Neill also enables us to see the beauty that Baby sees. We’re reminded how a rock or a doll can become so hugely important to a young girl. We’re reminded of the delightful weirdness of children and the random judgements they make.
Baby skates on that line between childhood and womanhood. In so many ways she is still a little girl, carrying her dolls in a suitcase, oblivious to the effect of her changing body on the men around her. She is tempted by adulthood too though. The chance of something else, of greater affection as Jules begins to pull away from her and she searches for attention from the neighbourhood pimp. By the time she realises that childhood, once gone, is gone forever, it might be too late.
This is much of the tension that drives the novel. The danger the reader can see all around Baby and that she may recognize but still insists on ignoring. She knows who the neighbourhood pimp is and yet she can’t seem to shake free of him. She desires a normal relationship with the boy she likes at school but she knows how different her family is from his. She struggles with wondering what she deserves out of life, already having learnt the harsh lesson that not all are created equal.
You can’t help but worry about Baby but you don’t pity her. She’s tough and she’s strong and she’s smart and, in the end, she has always known what she really wanted. The saddest part though is that real life is full of children like her, many with much sadder endings.