Thursday, March 11, 2010

Lullabies for Little Criminals

It's Canada Reads week on CBC, so it seems like a good time to talk about Heather O'Neill's novel Lullabies for Little Criminals, which won Canada Reads in 2007, when it was championed by John K. Sampson (lead singer of The Weakerthans and former poet laureate of Winnipeg).

Lullabies for Little Criminals follows the coming-of-age of Baby (so named because her teenage parents couldn't come up with anything better), who grows up in Montreal, surrounded by drugs and poverty. Baby lives with her father, Jules, a heroin addict of the most dangerous kind. Alternatively loving and violent, Jules' constant money problems force them to move frequently from one cheap hotel room or grungy apartment to another and his violent tendencies drive a wedge between father and daughter.

Eventually, one of Jules' drug binges leaves Baby alone for over a week. Jules is barely an adult and Baby often waffles between viewing him as her father and as a fun junkie friend. When he goes missing, though, she gets scared for him and, after wandering the streets looking for him, she gets picked up by Child Services and placed in a foster home while Jules goes to rehab.

Baby's foster home (not the last one she ends up in) is outside of Montreal, cutting her off from the rhythms and life that she knows. For the first time in her life she has actual adults in her around her, as well as pseudo-siblings. She hates it for a while and misses Jules, but it seems that just as she's getting her life together he comes back to get her, promising that everything will be better.

Of course, it isn't. Jules is an addict who is too sad when sober to ever really leave heroin behind. After noticing Alphonse, the local pimp, paying attention to Baby (who's about 13 at this point), Jules starts lashing out at her. As the violence escalates and Jules starts spying on Baby and going through her meagre belongings she runs away to the supposed safety of Alphonse. She tries to return to Jules a few days later, but when the door is locked she assumes he has abandoned her in disgust.

So Baby returns to Alphonse. But once their life together gets going, she realizes he isn't as wonderful as she thought. Eventually he convinces her to start turning tricks. Then, Alphonse convinces Baby to try heroin, at which point there's no turning back.

Baby is still going to school throughout all of this. She's a pretty good student, actually, and befriends Xavier, an odd boy who is also a bit of an outcast. As her life with Alphonse devolves into more of a pimp-trick relationship, Baby draws closer to Xavier and they start secretly dating. One day, Alphonse comes home to find Xavier and Baby together in his hotel room. Furious and high, he beats both Baby and Xavier and, after sending Xavier out, steals Baby's heroin. The next morning, she wakes up to discover Alphonse has died of an overdose.

Not knowing what else to do, she heads for a men's shelter where she has heard Jules is staying. She finds him, sober, in the dining hall and he tells her he found a job and a place for them to stay outside the city and, ready to start over, they catch the bus together.

Lullabies for Little Criminals was pretty controversial when it came out (and might still be). Reading about a 12-year-old prostitute is no easy thing, especially because O'Neill doesn't shy away from descriptions that place you in the room with Baby, making you just another adult complicit in her messed up life. But because of how fully realized Baby's voice is, O'Neill never strays outside of what you can believe might happen to her. As matter-of-fact as Baby is when she's describing Jules or Alphonse or one of the men who pay little girls for sex, she's never looking for sympathy from the reader. Rather, she's telling you her story in the kind of blunt way only a child can.

For a relatively short novel, O'Neill fits a lot in. When I saw her read from Lullabies last year I was captivated by the way she described being high: the way Baby sees things is fairly particular throughout the novel, but especially so when she's describing dead flies and window glass while stoned on heroin. And, really, I think it's those moments of clear honesty that keep the book from being totally bleak. It's a depressing subject on the surface, but once you get into Baby's life it seems full of hope, or at least beautiful insight, and that buoys the story. Baby is not just another lost kid; whatever she's going through she experiences with her eyes open, taking in the world the way she lets you take in her life. And it seems clear that anyone with that much self-awareness can never really be beyond recovery.

Lullabies for Little Criminals
by Heather O'Neill
First published in 2006 by HarperCollins (cover edition shown from that edition)


  1. Your summary is really crappy because some of the things that happened in the novel didn't occur because of the reasons you listed. For example, Baby didn't get picked up by social services for wandering around looking for her dad, Jules kicked her out and then called social services and told the what happened. Also, your summary isn't in chronological order.

  2. Actually, the first time, she is picked up by them because Jules is in hospital. The second time, it's because she's looking for Jules, who is getting arrested, and wanders into a car. The third time he calls the cops on her. So the summary isn't wrong, and certainly isn't crappy.


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