Eleven-year-old Martha is used to being the one who has to keep her head. Tug, her little brother, is too small. Dad is too strange. And Mum's not here any more.
So when Dad falls off the roof, it's Martha who ices his knee and takes him to the doctor. And when Dad doesn't come home, it's Martha who cooks Tug's favourite pie and reads him his bedtime story. And when Dad passes out, it's Martha who cleans him up and keeps his secret.
But eventually Dad's problems become too big for even Martha to solve. There is only one person who can sort things out now. Dad.
In a story that's simultaneously lighthearted and unsettling, Mason (the Quigleys series) successfully depicts the tumultuous mix of love, anger, disappointment, and confusion that a parent's alcoholism brings to a family. Keeping the focus on stalwart, responsible 11-year-old Martha, who has been taking on increasing household responsibilities since her mother's death two years earlier, Mason eschews didacticism and melodrama, closely portraying Martha's puzzlement about the changes in her once safe and reassuring father. Not until a new friend points out the obvious her father is a drunk does she understand his baffling behavior. Martha's struggles to wean her father off alcohol, keep her grandparents from calling Social Services, and help her five-year-old brother, Tug, feel safe are credibly and movingly rendered. Secondary characters are satisfyingly drawn: always ravenous Tug; their stern but well-meaning grandparents; and, especially, Martha's best friend, theatrical, cross-dressing Marcus. Martha's free time is spent sewing costumes for Marcus and aiding him in his filmmaking ventures; her eventual turn to acting herself, though hinted at earlier in the book, is somewhat surprising, but makes for a rewarding finale. Ages 9 13.