Forever, or a Long, Long Time by Caela Carter

 

 

“Are you believing?” he asks.

I shrug.

“I believe, Florey,” he says, this time without the crazy smile. “It’s just…”

“OK,” I say. I don’t want him to say it. We both feel the same way but if we say it out loud something terrible could happen.

We believe in Forever. We do. But our belief is thin. It’s a tightrope suspended above a deep, dark canyon. We stand on it and wobble. The minute someone shakes the rope, we could fall into the dark abyss of foster care.

So yes. We believe in Person. But we can’t help preparing for the fall. (p. 23-24)

The passage quoted above is one of the most overtly introspective passages of the book, and the least in-character for Flora, who can’t always find words, and sometimes can’t speak at all. Nevertheless, this image of Flora and Julian clinging to their tightrope of belief in Person (what Flora secretly calls the woman who adopted them) and Forever, wanting to believe and unable to help preparing for the fall reveals viscerally one of the ongoing tensions in the book: their need to believe (and desire to trust), and their inability to, and their ongoing awareness of both these truths.

Flora and Julian have been in foster care since they were three and two years old, respectively. Now nine and almost-eight, they have lived with Person for nearly two years. Almost two years of this tenuous Forever means they have made enormous strides, according to Ms. K, Flora’s fourth-grade teacher, and according to their counselor, Dr. Fredrick.

I thought Forever meant No Changes Ever Again. (p. 81)

Changes aren’t a good thing, in Flora’s experience. So finding out that Person is going to have a baby means she and Julian have to be good, fine, don’t-need-anything kids. Flora and Julian know that the baby will take most of Person and Dad’s love, and they need to make sure there’s still love for them, too. Even if it isn’t enough.

Even if being good means losing her teacher. Even if with all this change swirling inside her head, “good” feels just out of reach.

Ms. K nods. “You’ve made some huge strides over the last few months, Flora, but I need you to really focus on these last few weeks of school. You’re passing fourth grade by the skin of your teeth right now. You really need to work hard and pass almost every assignment until the end of the school year if you want to go on to fifth grade.”

“I know.” I say.

But I don’t want to go on to fifth grade. I’m trying hard to do it because I want to make Person happy more than I want Ms. K to be my teacher forever. And I want to make Ms. K happy too. But it’s so confusing that making Ms. K happy means leaving her. Especially when Person promised no more changes. Forever.

How do I believe in forever if it doesn’t include Ms. K? (p. 68-69)

Unsurprisingly, after so many years in foster care, Flora and Julian have trauma. Forever, or a Long, Long Time has the most in-depth, echoingly true depiction of trauma that I’ve read in fiction, maybe ever. That this is managed so accurately while remaining in character-narrator and accessible (I hate to use the word appropriate because it smacks of censorship) to middle grade readers is nothing short of astonishing. Because this story is impossible to put down (except maybe to reach for kleenex? That’s allowed, okay!). Flora’s voice rings out clear from every page, her thoughts and feelings open to the reader even when Flora can’t express herself aloud during the emotional tumult of the end of the school year and beginning of summer. I loved how the internal logic of Flora’s reactions and through processes is laid out, even as we the reader can see how the people around Flora – excepting Julian – don’t understand why she does what she does. I loved how Flora and Julian are bound so closely together —

“Team,” I say.

We’re in this together. It’s the only thing I’ve ever been able to do for Julian. It’s the only thing he’s ever been able to do for me. (p. 48-49)

— and yet have different manifestations of trauma and different responses to stress. Julian is not a tragic smaller sibling but a separate and fully dimensional force, the one constant in Flora’s life, just as she is the one constant in his.

Family – different kinds of family; definitions of family; creation and recognition of family and families – is naturally a major theme of the story and constantly interrogated. There is a tremendous variety of families represented and many ways of being related. Elena, Dad’s daughter from a previous marriage, has a lovely character arc given in two ways: as Flora comes to know her better; and as Elena herself changes.

I’m informed that there are relatively few positive representations of counselors or other mental health professionals in children’s literature; fewer with on-page time or dialogue. One happy exception is Dr. Fredrick, whose ongoing professional relationship with the family is subtly established; although Dr. Fredrick appears in only two scenes, these are significant points for the family as a whole and as individuals. Dr. Fredrick’s influence is shown as a positive thing and the fact of going to a counselor is normalized.

Dad sighs. “How did this stuff start up again? I thought we were through the rough patch, the adjustment?”

“The adjustment will last the rest of their lives,” Person says.

I gasp so loudly I freeze to make sure they don’t hear.

I can’t believe Person knows that. That she admits it.

Person says she’s here forever, but I know Person doesn’t still live with Grams who used to be her mom. And Ms. K doesn’t live with her mom either. And Dad doesn’t live with his mom, especially since his mom is dead. So Forever doesn’t mean what it is supposed to mean and adjustment will happen over and over again and it’s always going to hurt and I’m always crying because it’s such a relief that Person realizes this even if I have no idea who else she means or what else she’s talking about. (p. 176)

Also in good representations of adults in children’s literature: Ms. K is very clearly a stellar teacher who puts extra time and effort into helping her students and into caring about them as people. Flora loves Ms. K. And yet we also see Ks. K tired, frustrated. She isn’t a bit sentimental or ineffective. When she feels she has made a mistake she apologizes and rectifies it. You will probably end up adoring Ms. K as much as Flora does, okay? She really does go the extra mile – and, reading as an adult, I felt that I had read about an exceptional, a very good woman who was human.

“I love you, Flora,” Person says. She stands and kisses the top of my head and the kids in the room giggle at that but I don’t care. “I’m really glad you’re my kid. No matter what. Remember that, OK?”

I like it when she says these things and kisses me but I always duck away from it because I’m afraid there’s going to be a day when she doesn’t say those things or kiss me anymore. (p. 37)

Which is to say, the adults are written as fully “real” as the kids are. Person, too, has tired days and things she doesn’t want to face. And yet she is wholly loving to her kids. It is such a pleasure to read a story where the characters of all ages feel like real people, so fully flawed and lovingly human that you almost expect them to walk into your kitchen.

I’m happy but I start to shake anyway. Happy and Scared are so close together inside me. They press up against each other like two people sharing a bed that’s too small. I can’t wake up Happy without Scared being a little bit disturbed. (p. 209)

I meant to talk a lot more about the trauma and how it complicates normal transitions, and about the millions of little misunderstandings between people, and about foster hell and also about the mothers whose love beams radiant from the page, and how this is just a lovely, marvelous book, but I think there are some things you will just have to discover for yourself.

Oh! And it was so neat that the animals set as constellations on the (so. pretty. must. gaze.) cover really do all take part in the story. Watch for them 🙂

It’s not that there’s anything specific I remember yet. It’s only good feelings and a certainty that I’ve been on the other side of the door.

It bursts open and two women rush out of it, calling our names. “Julian!” “Flora!” “Flora!” “Julian!”

One is white and one is black. They are the same height but the black one is skinny and the white one is not. They have smiles that look like someone drew on a pancake in maple syrup.

They’re rushing at us.

Within seconds we’re in their arms. I don’t remember this woman’s name but I remember her small. I remember the soft folds of her body making a perfect cushion for my head. I remember in a way that doesn’t have words or facts, just feelings.

I remember riding on her shoulders. (p. 231)

Highly recommended.

“It’s OK your words are stuck, Florey,” Julian says through the crazy, wrinkly smile. “They’ll come back eventually. We have until forever, I guess.” (p. 308)