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The Ocean Within

By V. M. Caldwell, illustrated by Erica Magnus 236 pp. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions. $6.95/$15.95. A Girl Learns To Connect

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Author V. M. Caldwell beautifully details the emotional turmoil of a withdrawn, newly-adopted 11-year-old. In this young adult novel, Elizabeth Lawson, orphaned at age six and on her third placement, has a complex, solitary inner life but little ability or willingness to connect with others. Elizabeth agrees to her adoption by the Sheridan family solely to spend a month at the beach. She expects that once her lifelong dream to see the ocean is fulfilled, she will move on to another family. But a summer with siblings and cousins, as well as the efforts of the family matriarch (whom Elizabeth privately dubs "Iron Woman"), breaks through her emotional armor.

Unfortunately, the perceptive portrayal of Elizabeth's inner life unfolds in an otherwise disappointing story. The impossibly wonderful Sheridan family members are neither compelling nor easy to tell apart. We learn nothing of Elizabeth's life with her biological parents. Assuming six years of normal upbringing, why is she so emotionally damaged? How is it that she is already adopted when she has been with the Sheridan family only seven weeks? A cousin's bar mitzvah is mentioned, but nothing else in the story conveys that this is a Jewish family. The adoptive parents are ciphers-appearing only twice in the book. One wonders why they would send Elizabeth on a month-long vacation without them so soon after placement.

Most disturbing is the liberal use of spanking by the grandmother, a character we are meant to admire and whose battle to reach Elizabeth forms the core of the book. There is no recognition that spanking might be inadvisable. Rather, it is presented as an oft-used and successful form of discipline.

Elizabeth is an appealing and well-drawn character. It is a shame to see her surrounded by a clichéd plot and uninformed adoption practices.

By Julie Stevens, a family law attorney and a single parent with five domestically adopted daughters.

Copyright © 2001 Adoptive Families magazine. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

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