Book Review: Litani by Jess Lourey

In Litani by Jess Lourey, fourteen-year-old Frankie Jubilee explores the dark secrets and sinister criminal network in a small town in the heart of the rural Midwest.

I’m a big fan of Jess Lourey’s thrillers, mostly because she makes a conscious choice to center the victims in her stories, to give their stories of terror and survival and healing the most prominent place in the narrative. Her latest novel, Litani, is no different in its compassion and scope, bringing to life the Satanic Panic era and the impact it had on the children it affected.

It’s the summer of 1984 when Frankie Jubilee’s beloved father dies, forcing her to leave her Pasadena home to live with her cold and distant mother in the novel’s titular town. In addition to contending with the usual emotional upheaval of losing a parent and moving to a place where she knows almost no one, Frankie must deal with a cultural zeitgeist that isn’t safe for, much less friendly to, kids like herself:

[L]earning that I was forced to move from urban Pasadena to a rural Minnesota dot-on-the-map at age fourteen, you might picture me as a city girl forced to shrink myself, a big, glittery fish trapped in a small, boring pond, me with California hair and clothes and ideas, air-dropped into Little House On The Prairie.

 

You’d be wrong.

 

Not because back then I was a small-for-her-age nerd who liked plants. Not because the kids in Litani were fast, every one of them sex and cigarettes and sharp-toothed smiles. Not even because Pasadena had neighborhoods that were like small towns, safe and friendly and familiar.

 

No, you’d be wrong because Litani was danger, pure and simple.

Litani is a town where kids aren’t supposed to play outside, and where Frankie is specifically told not to play with any adults. The latter warning seems like a particularly strange piece of advice given to Frankie by her often-absent mom. Perhaps strangeness should be unsurprising: Franki’s mom doesn’t seem especially well equipped to deal with having a daughter come live with her, especially not after their last disastrous visit seven years ago. Linda Jubilee is a high-powered prosecutor obsessed not only with breaking a huge sexual abuse case that could implicate dozens of Litani’s townsfolk, but also with making herself look good in the process. As a result, she doesn’t have a whole lot of time for the child she’s barely interacted with in years, scheduling a series of practical tasks for Frankie to fill her days with instead.

After Frankie is beaten up by a gang of younger girls on her first undirected solo outing in Litani, she’s more than happy for the structure her mother offers, even if it does involve going door-to-door in the stifling heat in order to interview townsfolk about a proposed time capsule project. But as she gets to know the town and its residents better, she starts to fear that there’s a greater danger lurking than social ostracization, as her crusading mother and a sinister criminal network seem set on a collision course with Frankie caught in the middle.

This even-handed look at real events that rocked America is laudable, not only for the way it examines the many flawed people involved, but also for how much it deeply cares about the victims of abuse. Frankie is a terrific protagonist, a young teen with emotionally fraught relationships with her parents, who is doing her best to honor the good in them while processing the hurt inherent in how they failed her, even if, to her young mind, she thinks that she’s the one responsible and not the other way around:

My chin started to quiver, so I covered it with my hand. It was a load of bull crap, [Mom] caring when I was home. She was doing that thing where she puts on a show for her audience, and by their expressions, they couldn’t have cared less. But I discovered that I didn’t care if she was acting. I desperately wanted her to hold me, however it had to happen. If it was fake, fine. If it was half-hearted, okay, just give it to me. I kept myself still, I smiled, I tried to look welcoming, lifting my hands up and toward her ever so slightly.

 

She stepped toward me.

 

And then she turned, grabbed her purse, and strode for the door[.]

Ms. Lourey portrays the interior life of a girl who just wants her parents to love her, even as she convincingly shows readers the many ways damaged people act out, through the eyes of a young stranger slowly uncovering the dark and secret history of a small Midwestern town. This page-turner has chills aplenty as we root desperately for Frankie to prevail against the forces that threaten to overwhelm and destroy her. 

A neat bonus for readers, especially those of us who grew up devouring pop culture in the 80s, is the inclusion of Frankie’s Choose Your Own Adventure-inspired botanical illustrations. But even readers who don’t care about illustrations will find Litani another terrific, heartfelt entry to Ms. Lourey’s thriller oeuvre.

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