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Sunday, July 13, 2014

Keeping Safe the Stars, written by Sheila O'Connor. Puffin, Penguin. 2012. $8.99 ages 9 and up

"I hope," Nightingale murmured. She sighed a slow, loud yawn. "Aren't you out of steam?" "Not yet," I said. I'd been racing past what-next since Old Finn got his fever, and no matter what last happened, some new problem waited to be solved. I had too much on my mind to fall asleep. I closed my eyes and tried to say the prayers. Dear God, please get rid of that infection"

Three young children, with Pride in charge at 13, are left alone when their beloved grandfather goes to the doctor about a headache, and is subsequently hospitalized when diagnosed with encephalitis. Pride, Nightingale and Baby Star have been living with Old Finn since the death of his daughter, their mother.

The children did not know their grandfather prior to his rescuing them from a county shelter, where they had been placed after their mother died in a car crash. Their father had previously died of cancer. Finn had to convince the county that the children needed to be with their grandfather. Once done with that, he brought them to his isolated country home in Eden. It is a much more peaceful place than the commune where they had lived in New Mexico. Miss Addie lives down the road, and is left in charge when Finn must be away from the children.  Few visitors ever make their way to their front door.

Together they are forging a new life. Reclusive and keen on being independent, Old Finn has much to teach them:

"Old Finn had been preaching self-reliance since the first day that we came. Nearly two years straight of self-reliance lessons. Independence. Even though I'd been standing steady on my own two feet since the day I learned to walk. Still it was Old Finn's self-reliance that taught me how to fix a toilet, change a fuse, brew potato soup for supper, weed the garden and chop wood. It's why we had our school at his table instead of going into Goodwell like everybody else."

Old Finn's lessons encourage the three to practice independence, fend for themselves and 'keep safe the Stars'. There is little they can do when he does not return, except to try to keep anyone from knowing that they are alone, just as their grandfather would want. Their bid to care for their needs and keep the county at bay results in a plan to make enough money for food and a bus trip to Duluth to see Finn. They do it by selling crafts and even pony rides to the tourists who are enjoying a Minnesota summer. Of course, that brings unwanted attention.

When Pride finds and reads old letters between Old Finn and Justine, she discovers a great deal about his life prior to their arrival. With wit and tenacity, they find Justine in Duluth and tell her about their grandfather's plight. She loves Finn and wants to help. Luckily, they can count on her.

Pride's voice is strong. Her sense of loyalty to Old Finn and her siblings keep her working hard to provide for their needs, while having to tell lies to the adults who show concern. The three may not agree on Pride's methods but they do stick together, growing stronger as a family unit as they face their adversity. Thoughtful and compelling, this is a family story that is sure to grab attention and please readers (and listeners) who will root for these brave, dedicated and hardworking children as they ultimately realize that they just might need help to carry on.

Satisfying and heartfelt, this tale is about family love at its best.  

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