craft review by Anne-Marie Strohman
The Lonely Heart of Maybelle Lane is the story of a girl who finds her voice. She knows who her radio DJ dad is, but has never met him. When she hears him announce a singing contest he’ll be judging, she enlists her guardian-for-the-summer, fifth-grade teacher Mrs. Boggs, to drive her to Nashville from Davenport, Louisiana, in her RV. Maybelle’s nemesis neighbor, Tommy O’Brien, sneaks on board to tag along and escape some difficult parts of his life. While the book centers on Maybelle’s quest to meet her father, her character growth in the first half of the book centers on her relationship with Tommy.
Kate O’Shaughnessy does something really interesting with Tommy. She creates him in such a way that, even though the book is in Maybelle’s first-person point of view, readers know things about Tommy that Maybelle doesn’t. The literary term for this is dramatic irony.
(Note: This post doesn’t give the full scope of how lovable Maybelle is because the early parts of the book that focus on Tommy reveal Maybelle’s flaws. She really is a character readers want to spend time with.)
Many people think of dramatic irony as belonging to theater, and it does show up there. Take, for instance, the end of Romeo and Juliet. The audience knows that Juliet is alive and merely sleeping, but Romeo believes she’s dead and offs himself. The audience has knowledge Romeo doesn’t. But dramatic irony can also be used in other forms of art, including fiction.
Dramatic irony is most common in third-person point of view. The narrator can let readers know about things characters don’t know easily because the narrator can have information the character doesn’t have. What O’Shaughnessy does in The Lonely Heart of Maybelle Lane is much trickier. She lets readers know through Maybelle’s narrative things that Maybelle herself doesn’t understand. Let’s look at how she does it.
Maybelle lumps Tommy in with the group
Early in the novel, Maybelle only sees Tommy with his group of friends, who are mean to her, and she doesn’t distinguish among them. Tommy is not even the first of the boys introduced. O’Shaughnessy hides him behind Jeremiah Johnson. After a few paragraphs of a confrontation with Jeremiah, we meet Tommy.
[Jeremiah] grinned and whispered to the other boys he was with–Tommy O’Brien, who was also in our grade, and Tommy’s younger brother Jackson. Tommy and Jackson lived in Pelican Park, too, though I wish they didn’t. (18).
After more confrontation with Jeremiah, O’Shaughnessy widens Maybelle’s view slightly.
Next to [Jeremiah], Jackson snickered. Tommy stood a few paces back, his eyes on the floor. (18).
The next time we see Tommy, he is also lumped in with the group, though O’Shaughnessy draws special attention to him.
I turned to see Jeremiah Johnson, Tommy and Jackson O’Brien, and two of the even younger O’Brien brothers running toward me like a pack of wild, snotty-nosed wolves. . . Tommy had an American flag tied around his neck, and it streamed out behind him like a cape. (31).
Careful readers will notice Tommy’s retreat in the earlier scene, but overall, readers and Maybelle include Tommy as one of the wild boys. Even though there are slight distinctions between the individual boys, and O’Shaughnessy is preparing us to get to know Tommy, the overall sense is that Tommy and Jeremiah and the other boys are all the same.
Maybelle notices Tommy’s behavior, but doesn’t really notice it
Just as Maybelle doesn’t really notice Tommy standing back from the group in the first scene with the boys, even though she mentions it, she is blinded by her judgments about Tommy and his friends and the hurt they have caused her. She describes his behavior, and it’s different from Jeremiah’s, but she still equates the two boys.
When Jeremiah and friends break Maybelle’s prized radio, a teacher from their school, Mrs. Boggs, orders Tommy to help fix the radio. And she shows a possible different attitude toward Tommy:
“Mr. O’Brien.” Mrs. Boggs pointed at Tommy. “Try to help Maybelle fix her radio.” Her voice softened a little. “I know you’re good with things like that. . . .”
Tommy . . . came over to me. He wiped sweat from his forehead, leaving behind a long streak of dirt. “Are you okay?”
He asked it in a low voice, like he didn’t want anyone else to hear him. . . .
“Mrs. Boggs is right. I’m good with fixing stuff; maybe I can help–”
A few hot tears fell onto my cheeks. “Haven’t you done enough?” (33).
Maybelle is unable to see Tommy’s kindness, even though readers see his kindness through her first-person narration.
A little bit later in the story, O’Shaughnessy continues this split between Tommy’s actions and Maybelle’s perceptions. Maybelle decides she needs to borrow Tommy’s bike, even though “under normal circumstances, I’d rather walk to the moon than ask a favor of Tommy O’Brien. Especially after he’d ruined my radio” (59).
When she asks for Tommy’s bike in front of his brother, he is mean and rejects her. But later, he apologizes and drops off the bike for Maybelle to use. She acknowledges his odd behavior, but dismisses it:
“Boys,” I muttered to myself.
I didn’t think much longer about his strange behavior. I had places to be. (61).
In this section, O’Shaughnessy gives readers a clear description of Tommy’s actions both when he’s alone and when he’s with his friends and brother. Readers can see that Tommy is more complex than Maybelle thinks and that Maybelle doesn’t see Tommy for who he is. This is dramatic irony. We as readers know something Maybelle doesn’t. She is too blinded by her hurt and prejudice and her own goals to consider who Tommy really is.
Maybelle sticks to her prejudice despite evidence
After Mrs. Boggs agrees to take Maybelle on a trip to Nashville in her RV, Maybelle is prepared to leave Pelican Park behind, along with the wild boys. But when she finds Tommy asleep in the RV bathroom early in the trip, she is mad.
Tommy and his group at school has spent the last year making my life miserable, and now he was trying to glom on to my road trip? . . .
“This is one of the stupidest things you’ve ever done, Tommy O’Brien,” I said through clenched teeth. “And for you, that’s really saying something.” (90-91)
Maybelle has already told us twice that Tommy has a bruise on his cheek and his eye was a little swollen. But despite his previous kindness, despite the bruise, despite him loaning her his bike, Maybelle still only sees him as one of Jeremiah’s gang. As readers, we have sympathy for Tommy that Maybelle doesn’t. But we also understand her hurt.
Maybelle listens to Mrs. Boggs but still isn’t ready to change her mind
Maybelle trusts Mrs. Boggs, but even Mrs. Boggs’ request that she cut Tommy some slack doesn’t work.
Mrs. Boggs spells out what readers might already understand: Tommy is “a good boy hanging with the wrong crowd” (92).
Mrs. Boggs then reveals that Tommy is a victim of domestic abuse–his step-mother hits him. Maybelle’s response acknowledges Tommy’s reality, but still holds tightly to her own hurt:
I tried putting myself in [Tommy’s] shoes. I supposed it would be tough to live in such a small home with a family you were made to feel only half a part of. . . .
I don’t know if this made me a bad person, because while I felt sorry for Tommy’s situation, I still didn’t want him to tag along. (94)
Maybelle does agree that Tommy can stay–she feels like Mrs. Boggs would bring him whether she gave permission or not–and she continues to grump at him for the next bit of the drive. She does have some empathy for Tommy, but she also still has the hurt his friends caused her. The dramatic irony is gone–Maybelle knows the truth about Tommy–but Maybelle can’t bring herself to change her mind about him. Maybelle is aware of her potential flaw–she worries it might make her a bad person–but is honest with the reader about how she feels. This awareness and honesty is part of what makes readers connect to Maybelle.
Maybelle changes her mind
Maybelle finally changes her mind about Tommy almost halfway through the novel. The change is prompted by Tommy apologizing for the way his friends have treated her.
“I wanted to say . . . I wanted you to know . . . I’m sorry. About the way Jeremiah treats you. He can be all kinds of ugly.” (111)
When May asks why he’s friends with Jeremiah, if he sees Jeremiah for who he is, Tommy says,
“I don’t know. Because everyone thinks that’s where I belong, I guess. With the other bad kids.” (111)
In that moment, Maybelle acknowledges that she has seen evidence that Tommy is actually a kind soul:
Something inside me softened toward Tommy right then. Because in only a day, I’d already seen glimpses that made me think maybe Mrs. Boggs was right. That Tommy wasn’t one of the bad kids after all. (112)
After Tommy distinguishes himself from the group by apologizing for Jeremiah and is vulnerable with Maybelle, her beliefs about Tommy shift. She has had evidence from her personal interactions with Tommy and the testimony of Mrs. Boggs, but it takes this moment of acknowledging mutual hurt to cause her heart to soften toward him.
In the rest of the novel, Maybelle and Tommy work as a team, though they are not without their differences. In the end, Tommy is perhaps Maybelle’s biggest cheerleader. And we are rooting for Maybelle even more because we’ve seen her grow as a character.
Many adult readers will clue in right away that Maybelle has misjudged Tommy and what his homelife might be like. But kids might not. The way O’Shaughnessy guides Maybelle’s realizations about Tommy offers readers who don’t completely get it a way to discovering that knowledge alongside Maybelle. O’Shaughnessy does another smart thing by making Maybelle’s realizations about Tommy a huge moment in Maybelle’s growth, which makes readers want to see what more Maybelle can accomplish with her friend.
Action: If you have dramatic irony in your novel, can you use Kate O’Shaughnessy’s strategies to increase the tension between what the reader knows and what the main character knows? If you don’t have dramatic irony, is there a place for it in your novel? If so, brainstorm five to ten ideas for each of the strategies above.
Action: Consider how can you use secondary characters to show your main character’s growth over time.
Kate O’Shaughnessy‘s love of reading and writing stories began in early childhood and only grew stronger. She has been a chef, earned a fellowship with the Yale Sustainable Food Program, and backpacked around the world. She and her husband live in Berkeley, CA. You can read more about her at kloshaughnessy.com and follow her on Twitter or Instagram at @kloshaughnessy.
See more from KidLit Craft from Kate here:
Our Interview with Kate O’Shaughnessy
Kate’s blog post on setting, featured in our Retro Post series: The Magic of a Secret Space
Kate’s post on handling tough subject matter in children’s books
Anne-Marie Strohman (co-editor) writes picture books, middle grade novels, and young adult short stories and novels. She is trained as a teacher, an editor, and a scholar, specializing in Renaissance Literature. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is an active member of SCBWI. Find her at amstrohman.com and on Twitter @amstrwriter.