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Family of Strangers

Family of Strangers

by Susan Beth Pfeffer

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School Library Journal
Gr 7-10-- Abby, 16, relates her story of loneliness and family neglect through unsent letters and transcripts from sessions with her psychologist. Devastated by the long-ago death of their only son and their daughter Jess's constant problems, her parents withdraw from family life, leaving ``perfect'' oldest child Jocelyn to hold everything together. When Jocelyn goes away to school, Abby feels unloved and unwanted, and decides that staying out of the way is her best course of action. When hiding in her room is not enough, she attempts suicide. Death permeates the novel. Abby feels that if Johnny had lived, her parents would not have had her. Having failed at being a boy, she fears her whole life is a failure. Jess tries to kill herself with the less direct weapon of habitual drug and alcohol abuse. The Talbotts seem dead to each other and their daughters as they frantically bury themselves in demanding jobs. By presenting the story primarily from Abby's point of view, Pfeffer emphasizes her isolation. The other characters exist only in the context of how they affect Abby. The novel is narrowly focused and has very little plot or action. It is effective, however, as an introspective portrait of a hurting teenager trying to find her own way. --Lucinda Snyder Whitehurst, County of Henrico Public Library, Richmond, VA

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Random House Children's Books
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Family of Strangers

By Susan Beth Pfeffer


Copyright © 1992 Susan Beth Pfeffer
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-1842-6


Part 1


I, Abigail Leigh Talbott, being in my right mind and all that, do hereby leave the following things to the following people.

To my oldest sister, Jocelyn, I leave my books and my CDs, and my teddy bears.

To my other sister, Jess, I leave my clothes.

Oh and I leave my jewelry to Jocelyn also.

To my mother, Ginny Talbott, I leave my furniture.

To my father, John Robert Talbott, I leave

Oct. 9

Dear Rachel,

I tried making out another will today, but I got stuck again on what to leave my father. I can never figure out what he should get. I know the will isn't legally binding anyway, nobody pays attention to the wishes of sixteen-year-olds, but I'd still like to get it all down, so people will know what I wanted them to have at least.

Of course, that's assuming I can ever figure out what I want them to have.

I left my mom my furniture this time, but that didn't feel right either. I went shopping with her for most of it, and it's more hers than mine anyway. I wanted more modern stuff. She was the one who insisted on the brass bed. She told me it would last a lifetime, but who knows how long a lifetime's going to be? The way Mom made it sound, it was like my daughters' daughters would be giving birth to their daughters in that very bed, but I still would have preferred the more modern bedroom set.

You know how I am, Rachel. I never make out wills except when I'm depressed. Which I am these days. I don't know what's causing it. Fall, maybe, seeing the leaves change color and die. Jocelyn says fall is her favorite time of year, but it means school to her, and we know how well she handles that (about ten thousand times better than I ever will). I don't know what Jess's favorite season is, but I suspect it's any time after midnight.

The other thing about October is you know you're in school by then, and it feels like it's never going to end. The best you can hope for is Thanksgiving, which around here is never exactly a bundle of laughs. Dad always cries at Thanksgiving. I can't remember a single one when he didn't, even though for years I didn't know why. Sure, Jocelyn'll be back from school, and that always helps, but if Jess shows up, there'll just be fireworks, and if she doesn't show up, then Mom'll blame Dad for forbidding Jess to come home, and Jocelyn will do her peacemaking thing, and Dad'll start thinking about Johnny and start crying even sooner. That's what happened last year. Usually he holds off until halftime of the second football game, but last year, when Jess didn't come home, and Mom got so upset, he started crying before the opening kickoff.

Which has nothing to do with why I'm depressed in October, although it probably explains why November isn't my first favorite month either.

I really want this year to be better. In September I practically made a solemn vow to shape up, get my life in order, stop feeling so sad all the time. And for the first week of school, I really tried. I smiled all the time. It wasn't natural. My jaw actually hurt after a while, and once, in the middle of the night, I woke up and I was still smiling. The smile was like carved onto my face. It was really pretty scary.

And the smiling didn't seem to make things better at school. People who had never been my friends still weren't. Nobody looked at that smile and said, "Gee, you ought to be on the cheerleading squad." They didn't even ask if my braces had just come off, and was that why I was walking around like a toothpaste commercial. They didn't notice. Nobody's ever noticed me, not at school or at home or at Girl Scout camp. I know people love me, Jocelyn does, and Mom, but even they never notice me. I bet if I called Jocelyn up right now and asked her the color of my eyes, she wouldn't know.

Hers are blue, like Mom's. Jess and I both have gray-green eyes. And Dad's eyes are sad- colored.

I wonder what color Johnny's eyes were.


October 11

Dear Abby,

Your letter came this afternoon, and I figured I'd answer it while it was still fresh in my mind. I know what Jess would say—that I'm a neurotic for being so compulsive about correspondence!—but I'm not writing to her, and I'm willing to take my chances with you. I was glad to hear school's going so well for you. You're such a bright girl, the smartest of us all, I think, although you never give yourself enough credit. I read that paper you wrote last year, and I was impressed. It was a lot better than anything I turned out my sophomore year (maybe better than anything I wrote my entire high school career). If you could just learn to relax, I'm sure your test grades would skyrocket.

I know—I sound like a scold. It's a bad habit of mine. It comes from years of trying to shape Jess up. I was sure a big success on that one. I know you're not Jess, and I know even if you were, you'd do whatever you want, and not pay any attention to me (after all, Jess hasn't), but bad habits are hard to break. Besides, I love you, Abby, and I want you to be happy. I know things haven't been easy for you, and sometimes when you're not looking, I catch you with the saddest expression on your face. That's when I wish I could wipe away all the pain.

You know, when you were little, you were the happiest little girl. Always smiling or laughing or singing. I know there aren't many pictures, but I have my memories, and they're of you dancing in sunbeams. Even as you got older, you still seemed the happiest of us, until Jess told you about Johnny, when you were eleven. I don't think I'll ever forgive her for doing that. She was sixteen, and old enough to know what a hurtful thing she was doing, but Jess is like that. She needs to hurt people. She hurts herself most of all, of course, but that doesn't stop her from hurting others as well.

I think what made me angriest was that Jess didn't tell you to hurt you, but to hurt Dad and Mom. You were hardly more than a bystander, as far as she was concerned, but you were the one who was devastated. I know I wasn't there, but Mom called to tell me what had happened, and I can still picture the scene. Dad angry at Jess for behaving so badly, and Jess, picking and choosing among her weapons, selects Johnny, his death, and you. She never cares who she hurts, including herself.

I'm sorry. You don't need this kind of letter from me. I don't know why I'm writing it, except I heard from Jess yesterday (don't tell Mom or Dad), and she sounded so awful, so lost and low, and there's nothing I can do for her. Part of me (a lot of me) knows that even if I could help her, she doesn't want me to. She called more to upset me than for any other reason, and she succeeded. The girl has a gift.

She asked me for money, which of course I said no to, and then she wheedled and then she begged. She was living on the streets, she claimed, no money, and none to be earned legally, and if I didn't send her some fast, she'd probably starve or end up in jail or worse (I didn't ask her what would be worse than starving or ending up in jail for fear she'd tell me). All this on a collect phone call, which I was foolish enough to accept charges for.

You know something, Abby. I am a sane and levelheaded woman, and I suspect you are too, and I look at Jess and Dad, and even at Mom sometimes, and I wonder how I could possibly share any gene code with these people.

You know something else? You are the only person I could write this letter to. My friends here think they understand when I tell them I have a crazy sister and parents that can't deal with her, but they don't know. You know. I wish for your sake you didn't, but you do, and that makes my life a lot easier.

Next letter, I promise, will be happy and cheerful and full of school news. Just like the letter you sent me.

Love, Jocelyn



You've got to send me some money. I'm really desperate. If I had any kind of parents, I could turn to them, but they have no hearts and neither does Jocelyn that selfish bitch. She's just like them, they don't love me and she doesn't either, but you do, you have to, because you're the only person I have, and you're worth ten thousand of them, and all I need is just a little money, two hundred maybe, or more if you can spare it, and then I'll be able to straighten out my life, and get out of this dump, and start fresh somewhere, but fresh costs money, and that's why I'm writing. I know what Mom and Dad would say if I asked them, and Jocelyn has already said no in that prissy whimpering way she has, like just my asking her sullied her, but you, Abby, you know what they're like, how they can say they love you, but their eyes are dead, dead as Johnny, and I wish I was the one who'd died, and they wish it too, and you're the only one who's glad I lived and not that little brat, I'm glad he's dead, I just wish I'd died with him, I wish they all had, but they didn't and now I need money, just two hundred, or maybe more if you can spare it, and with a fresh start, I can straighten out my life, make something of myself, so they'd be proud of me, and if they were proud of me then I could spit on them for a change, and show them what they lost by not loving me.

I know what you're thinking, that that's a lot to get out of two hundred dollars, but it's a start. That's all I'm asking for Abby, is money to start, and I know you have it, I know September was your birthday, and they always give you money for your birthday, pretty bills with expensive presidents on them, and I know you never spend that money, you save it, so someday you can run away, but Abby, you should never do that, you should never run away, because the streets are hard, and you're not, you're soft, but it's a good kind of soft, gentle, like Mom used to be when she was Mommy, before Johnny died. The streets would kill you, like they're killing me, but if I only had two hundred dollars, or maybe more, I could get away from the streets, and I could live and make something of myself, and you'd be proud to call me your sister.

I have no one else I can turn to, Abby, no one else who still loves me. Show me you love me and send me the two hundred dollars, or maybe more, and I'll show you that I really am changing, and you'll be proud of me, and we can both spit on all of them.


Oct. 13

Dear Jocelyn,

I guess you're not the only obsessive in the family, because here I am, writing back to you the very day I got your letter!

Actually, I'm writing for advice. There's a boy in school, well actually he's new, he just started in September, but he's in my history class, and his name is Tim, and that's practically the only thing I know about him, except I think he's wonderful. He's really smart, and he's cute too, but I think he's kind of shy, which is just what I need, the Outgoing Queen herself.

I want to say something to him, but I don't know where to begin or what to say, and you've always been so popular, I remember when we practically had to barricade the house, you had so many boyfriends. What should I do to get Tim to notice me, or better still to fall madly in love with me (I'm ready to skip all the preliminary stages!)?

Please be obsessive about this letter, and answer it immediately. My hormones have gone into overdrive.

Love, Abby

October 15

Dear Abby,

Shyness is just nerves, and nerves come from fear of the unknown. So what you need to do is feel more in control of the situation, more like you can predict what's going to happen, and then it won't be unknown anymore, and you won't feel shy.

Write out an imaginary dialogue between you and Tim. Nothing heavy, and nothing implausible. Just you talking to him about school or where he's from, or any of the things you fantasize about talking to him about. Then once you have the dialogue written out, try it on him the next day at school. If he's shy too, he'll be relieved you started the conversation first. And if he isn't shy, he'll be flattered such a pretty girl is interested in him.

All I ask is that you name your firstborn for me!

Love, Jocelyn

Abby: Hi Tim.

Tim: Oh, hi Abby.

Abby: I really enjoyed history class today, didn't you?

Tim: Yeah, it was great. Mr. Lopez is one of the best teachers I ever had.

Abby: Me too. I never liked history all that much before, but Mr. Lopez really makes it come alive. Sometimes I feel like I'm there, writing the Constitution with Madison and everybody else, but of course I'm not. I mean even if I was, I wouldn't be, because I'm a girl, and they were all men.

Abby: Hi Tim.

Tim: Oh, hi Abby.

Abby: I really enjoyed history class today, didn't you?

Tim: Yeah, it was great. Mr. Lopez is one of the best teachers I ever had.

Abby: Me too. Of course I've been in this school system forever, I mean since kindergarten, so I haven't had that much experience with other teachers. I mean, I know the kind of teachers they hire in this district, but I don't know about other districts. Other states even. Maybe all teachers are like Mr. Lopez, except I guess they aren't, since you say he's one of the best you ever had, and you just started in this district so you would know. What other teachers are like I mean in other

Abby: Hi Tim.

Tim: Abby.

Abby: I hope you don't mind my talking to you like this, just starting a conversation I mean.

Tim: Abby, I love you.

Abby: What?

Tim: I know this is sudden, and I don't expect you to love me, at least not right away, but once you get to know me, to see just how deep my love for you really is, then I hope and pray you'll give me your heart as I have given you mine. Since that very first day in Mr. Lopez's class all I've been able to think of is you. I dream of you constantly. Your face is engraved on my eyes. I yearn to touch your lips with mine, to make mad passionate love with you on the beaches of Tahiti, to write songs about you, and climb mountains with you, and when we die, we'll die together, our arms linked throughout all eternity, and other lovers will come to our graves and weep the tears that we have weeped (wept?), and share the ecstasy that the world has called ours and ours alone. Marry me, Abby.


Oct. 23

Dear Rachel,

Well, what was I supposed to say? My God, I had us weeping and sharing ecstasy (which sounds kind of illegal), and I don't even know his phone number.

I guess I could have written down yes, but then I probably would have had him telling me about our kids, and the next thing you know we would have had a mortgage and two cars, and I may not be Jess, but I'm not ready to settle down quite that fast. At least not in my fantasies.

So I left his proposal unanswered.

Jocelyn (who knows me better than anybody) warned me not to do that. She specifically told me to keep the dialogue realistic, but every time I tried, I sounded as bad on paper as I do in real life. Mr. Lopez, great teacher. He isn't even that good a teacher, and for the first two weeks of class, he consistently called me Annie, which is probably what Tim thinks I'm named as a result. I should probably write out some dialogue for the two of us where I spend all my time trying to tell him I'm not named Annie after all, no matter what Mr. Lopez thinks.

You know something awful, Rachel? I had more fun writing that romantic stuff than I've had in so long I can't even remember. Even if somebody does fall in love with me someday (which I sincerely doubt), they're never going to want to make mad passionate love on the beaches of Tahiti. Get a suntan maybe, but that's it. Let alone climb mountains. Let alone me climbing a mountain. I can barely make it onto an up escalator.

I wonder if Jocelyn ever did that, wrote dialogues to give herself practice before she actually spoke to someone. I can't imagine it. Jocelyn always seems to know exactly what to say to people, except me sometimes, and then only in letters. Sometimes her letters to me sound like mine to you, saying more than she should. Only it's safe when I do it, and with her it's a risk. I might turn into Jess one day, and use her letters for my own evil purposes.

Sometimes I think I'd truly be happy if I really had evil purposes.


P.S. What the hell. I'll give it one more try.

Abby: Hello Tim.

Tim: Hello Annie.

Abby: My name is Abby, Tim.


Excerpted from Family of Strangers by Susan Beth Pfeffer. Copyright © 1992 Susan Beth Pfeffer. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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