How to describe Brock Cole's brilliant new young-adult novel, "The Facts Speak for Themselves?" Here's how the author himself did it in a recent magazine interview: "The Facts [Speak for Themselves?"] starts with a murder and the witness to the murder is a 13-year-old girl. In the initial interrogations, it becomes clear that she was sexually involved with the man who was murdered."
These are the factssimple, powerful, and unsparing. But there is more, much more, and it is all recounted for the reader by the girl, Linda, in her own unemotional, matter-of-fact voice. And as she tells us her story, we begin to understand who she is and, more importantly, why she is. The child of a failed marriage, she is the daughter of a woman whose life follows a typical pattern of failure and disappointment, a woman who finally, selfishly, decides to "cease striving." And then it becomes Linda's turn to take charge of her feckless mother and first one and then two little brothersan almost unbearable burden for a child her age. No wonder, as critic Ilene Cooper observes, "Linda craves being taken care of after always being the caretaker, and that's what Joe Greene [the murdered man] does for her."
Sure to be controversial in some quarterslike Cole's first young-adult novel,"The Goats," which was just challenged in a Terre Haute, Indiana, public school"The Facts Speak for Themselves?" is also receiving critical raves, including a full-page, starred review in Booklist magazine. It was also a finalist for the prestigious National Book Award for Young People'sLiterature 1997, whose judges declared that the book "speaks to the remarkable resilience of the human spirit and its capacity to survive, forgive, and go forward."
Speaking as one of those judges, I continue to be haunted by the cumulative power of Linda's voice and by her stubborn ability to survive. I am also hugely impressed by the brilliance of her creator, Brock Cole, and his extraordinary capacity to care about kids like Linda, whose stories we usually see recounted only in screaming newspaper headlines.
A former English teacher with a Ph.D. in philosophy, 59-year-old Cole came to writing through another form of narrative: illustration. He published his first picture book, "The King at the Door," in 1979. Five more followed before "The Goats" appeared in 1987. Like his latest, this novel is also an affecting story of survival. His second young-adult novel,"Celine", was published in 1989. Its protagonist is a 16-year-old girl who, like Linda, tells her own story. Cole recalls, "Sometimes when I was working on the novel, it was just as if I was writing down what she told me."
Linda's voice was harder for him to hear, he told a Publishers Weekly interviewer, since "it's so far away from mine." One thing is sure: It will never be far away from the reader's mindor heart. There are no neat resolutions to Linda's problems, no happy ending all wrapped up in a pretty, sentimental bow. But there is cause for cautious optimism. And the reader will supply the heartfelt hope.
The important thing about books like this is the opportunity they give us to examine the lives of people whom we may never have encountered in what we call "real life." Moreover, when these people are introduced to us in the pages of a novel as powerful as "The Facts Speak for Themselves," we readers are given the rare opportunity to eavesdrop on their hearts. Our own emotions become engaged, as a result, and maybe, just maybe, if we ever do meet a Linda in real life, we may be stirred to find ways to help her. Until then we can only be grateful to Brock Cole for his art, and to his publisher, Front Street, for its courage in giving us Linda's story with all of its hard edges intact.Michael Cart