Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Face on the Milk Carton

Fifteen year old Janie Johnson has the perfect upper middle class life in Connecticut (yes, I hate her, too). Apart from a milk allergy, she has it all—cute boy next door, rich parents, good grades and an alliterative name. Except one day at lunch, she sees a photograph of herself at age three on the back of a milk carton and recognizes herself. Supposedly she was kidnapped from a New Jersey shopping mall ten years ago and her real name is Jennie Spring. About two hundred pages of obsessing later, the conclusions?

Janie’s parents tell her that they had another daughter before her—Hannah, who joined the Hare Krishna cult as a young adult and got brainwashed. The Johnsons did all they could to get her back, until one day Hannah showed up with three year old Janie in tow, saying she was her daughter. The Johnsons assumed Janie was Hannah’s biological daughter from the cult and decided to raise her as their own (and Hannah disappears from their life forever to rejoin the Hare Krishnas).

Turns out Hannah, on the run from the cult, found Janie, or Jennie, at a shopping mall in New Jersey and took the child (for no real reason—but we’re given to believe she was something of a pathetic, lost soul). The book ends with Janie figuring all this out and then phoning her New Jersey family.
  • After reading this book, I assumed that the Hare Krishna movement was sinister. I couldn’t even listen to the George Harrison song “My Sweet Lord” without shuddering. (And not just because I’m a huge fan of the Chiffons.)

  • Janie looks at a picture of Hannah when going through stuff in the attic. “Sweet, blond, mild. The kind Sarah-Charlotte would refer to as a Used Rag Doll. ‘Not much stuffing in that one,’ Sarah-Charlotte liked to say of girls who were short on personality.” I hate you already, Sarah-Charlotte, and not just because you have a ridiculous double name.

  • The whole idea of Hannah being so passive and short on personality that she joins a cult is such lazy writing. If Will Smith and Shawn Hunter can fall in with bad crowds, so can anyone. Caroline B. Cooney could have constructed a normal, popular girl who joined a cult, and that would have been even creepier. After all, Hannah would not be the first pretty, rich blond girl to join a cult.
  • Much like myself, Janie is lactose intolerant and can’t drink milk. However, unlike me, she seems to think this is a bad thing and wishes she could drink milk like her friends. Her reasoning for swiping her best friend’s carton of milk is that when you eat peanut butter, you have to drink milk. I am so sick of mouth breathers who can’t function or answer simple questions about who shot Alexander Hamilton without glorified cow juice. So from page four, I knew our protagonist was a moron and I was completely unable to sympathize with her.

  • When I first read this book, the scene where Janie cuts school with her boyfriend, Reeve, to drive to New Jersey to track down her biological family really impressed me. From the car, she sees what she thinks are her brothers coming home from school to the Springs’ house and they all have red hair. When I first read this, I thought this totally proved that she was related to them. Except that milk carton girl had to have been a redhead or Janie wouldn’t have assumed it was her in the photo. And if Jennie Spring was a redhead, it makes sense that her family members would be as well. So really, this proves nothing and the trip to New Jersey is just another way to fill the book with incidents till the shocking denouement.

  • The Johnsons are obnoxiously rich. When Janie goes through a bunch of her old stuff in cardboard boxes in the attic, she finds some horrible Christmas tree sweaters that used to belong to her. Yeah, when you’re that rich, you pretty much have to buy stupid sweaters. It’s like a law. Janie also has an extensive collection of nightwear that range from flannel pajamas to teddies (dude, she’s fifteen!) and her mother is one of those do gooder women who tutors basketball playing Laotian kids and serves on hospital boards.

  • Oh, and Janie and her mother take cake decorating classes as a bonding exercise. Yes, cake decorating classes. I really wish I could photograph the cake Mrs. Johnson makes for the tailgating party in chapter six and send it to Cake Wrecks because somehow I know Mrs. Johnson can’t space to save her life.

  • Janie’s boyfriend and next door neighbor tells his older sister, Lizzie (who's in law school), about what’s going on because he figures they should get some kind of legal counsel. She also helps Janie’s parents sort everything out at the end of the book, and Mrs. Johnson even asks if Lizzie will meet with the New Jersey parents, the Springs, on their behalf. Reeve asking his older sister for advice, I understand, but Mr. and Mrs. Johnson? They’re rolling in it and they go to a first year law student? (And they’re actually surprised when said advice turns out to be wrong in the sequel.) Then again, who am I to judge? In college, my legal advice consisted of my token pre-law friend and the occasional nugget of wisdom I got from Miranda Hobbes.

  • The story ends with Janie getting in contact with the Springs. Actually, it ends with her dialing the phone and saying, “Mom?” as soon as she hears a woman’s voice. Cliff hanger-y and exciting, except no one’s even taken a DNA test or spoken to someone who’s passed the bar exam, so you might not want to be so quick to admit anything.

  • The years don’t really add up. Jennie Spring was kidnapped at age three, according to the milk carton, and that was ten years ago. Which would make Janie thirteen, not fifteen. But Jennie’s birth date is only six months prior to Janie’s. The back of the book says Janie was kidnapped twelve, not ten, years ago. I have no clue who to believe. All I can say is that she’s on the wrong side of sixteen (the age of consent law in Connecticut). Her sex obsessed boyfriend is seventeen, so you guys just might want to look into establishing how old she really is. (For the record, the age of consent is sixteen in New Jersey, but minors aged 13 to 15 can have sex with people up to four years older. Now we know why Reeve was so eager to go on that road trip to New Jersey.)

Conclusions and Improvements

  • I sort of sympathize with Hannah. I think I’d rather go join a cult than live in an upper class WASP nest. And not just because I look better in saffron robes than in twin sets and pearls.

  • Janie’s parents tell her that the reason they didn’t realize that she was a kidnapping victim was that they thought that the cult would do anything to track them and Janie down, so they were on the run for several weeks afterwards, too busy to watch news reports or read the papers. They seriously thought that the people who sold flowers in airports were going to be able to stalk them? This story would have been so much better if Janie’s parents really did know that Janie probably wasn’t their grandchild but were secretly fooling themselves because they were so desperate for another child.

  • This book would’ve also been a lot better if Hannah had to kidnap a young na├»ve woman so the cult could impregnate her with the son of Satan. But I got to read that book when I was in high school.

All in all, this was terrible, but I can’t wait to read the follow up.