Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O’Neill, 2006, is a portrait of childhood on the streets. And yes, it made me cry (as if a book’s propensity to make one cry is the judge of its merit. …but alas I love the visceral expulsion of tears).
Everything that happens in Lullabies is completely illegal. And yet completely understandable. And tragic. It opens up your sympathy for humanity on the margins, humanity stuck in the destruction of poverty and drug addiction. And it makes you yearn to save another little child from this life. I can’t imagine anyone reading this book and not becoming a better person afterwards, even though it is lurid and graphic and uncomfortable. Because it has a firm sense of beauty and justice encased in a world of green and sin.
The flower blooms in the mud kind-of-thing.
You meet a little girl, Baby, entranced by beauty in objects, in her filthy neighbourhood and in people—but only beauty of the twisted or surreal type. She has a sense of place, Old Montreal and its red light district, and she has a core idea: that of being a child. It’s the iconic portrait of a child afraid of the wrong things, not afraid of the wrong things, unable to care for herself. She bears that lack of logic of a child, the ability of children to love children, of children to love unloveable adults and simply not know better. She parents her own drug-addicted father, Jules, and makes friends with the neighbourhood rif-raf. Then she has the experience of being cared for by two foster moms, and enjoys the security of it. But wrenched between that life and the life of her father, she eventually falls into childhood prostitution. When she’s 13, her father finally decides to send her to live with a cousin in Val De Loups. Which is supposed to be a happy ending.
The last chapter is dense. Packed with feeling. It masterfully combines all the emotional elements, the loss, the confusion, the pain of the the entire novel and wraps them up by resolving them—her longing for a mother, to be loved by her father, to know the truth of her mother’s death. These basic themes strike a deep chord with your most secret longings and identity.
Lullabies also offers a perfect recreation of a child’s voice and a child’s perspective, awakening compassion, nostalgia and sentimentality as well as outrage at the injustice of generational drug addiction. You spend the entire book longing for her to be rescued and cared for. And even though the book is very sad, it’s not so sad that you don’t want to read it. It’s sad in a beautiful way.
At one point in the narrative, Baby gets piercingly close to making the right decision and putting her own path on the right way. But circumstances turn around and she quickly goes into tailspin. It’s tragic. The only way for her to finally get out is through sheer luck, and then the rescue by her father, even though he barely can take care of himself. And so the core of the book is that childhood longing to be cared for, to be safe, to be wanted and loved. It’s so basic and human and naked. (And it doesn’t fail to remind me of the beauty of the gospel — a full and complete acceptance and provision that is too good to be true, unearned, unmerited, unbelievable.)
Better than the last two memoirs that I read, Lullabies sheds light on more than a soul; it sheds light on universal truth. Brain on Fire and Wild were good, but this is great, much like The Glass Castle is great. It’s that plight of the child. It’s not the plight of the young adult trying to find herself, but the plight of the child who is powerless and weak and subject to the forces of chance and to the will of the adults around it.
What a way to make sense of the world.