Caroline Cooney's A Friend at Midnight: A Gripping, Disappointing, Meaningful Book

By Caroline B. Cooney

A Friend at Midnight. Delacorte, 2006; WaterBrook, 2008.

Caroline B. Cooney’s A Friend at Midnight is one I picked up on a whim Friday afternoon. Obviously, since it’s only Monday now, this book was a quick and engrossing read. It’s the charming (ahem) story of a little boy abandoned at the airport by his father and rescued by his older sister. It’s about the elder sister’s struggle with keeping her brother’s secret. Overall, I’d say the book was annoying and refreshing and gripping and disappointing and meaningful. So, that’s it! Hope you’re having a good Monday!

Ha! Ok, I’ll explain my assessment. First off there’s the issue of publisher. In 2006 this book was put out by Delacorte Press, but in 2008 WaterBrook handled the reprints. Both are imprints of the same house, and I’m not going to waste words saying which. In short, one imprint is Christian, the other is not. So how did this get to start off in the “not” house and end up in the Christian one? Because Jesus’ name flies around like … like … oh, I don’t know, a delinquent teen at summer camp. But unlike summer camp (in my limited experience), the book did not end with several verses of “Just As I Am.” Nobody gets saved! For a Christian book, how wonderfully refreshing. In case no one else knows this, “Just As I Am” is one song. One, and not one Reformed folk like myself ever sing except at Baptist summer camp. Not only does it make a book predictable, it really does get boring after a while. So, thank you Caroline for letting faith emerge, develop, and conclude naturally.

But how was the book annoying and disappointing? Ouch, harsh words, I know. That’s what happens when I write up my thoughts on a Monday. My critique really isn’t that harsh. It’s merely a question - two of them, actually.

1. Who is this book about? It seems to be about Michael, since he’s the one being dumped at the airport by his birth father (after leaving his mom, step-dad and sisters to live with Dad) though it’s not written in his point of view. Or is it about his sister, Lily, who rescues him? She’s the POV character, yet there’s very little of her own, non how-to-help-Michael life, and what little there is seems tacked on. A romantic interest tossed in two thirds through, a best friend who doesn’t really ripple any waters. Lily is a perfectly nice character, perfectly sympathetic. But she’s rather flat, and the story is rather flat because of her Michael-is-the-center-of-my-universe-ness.

2. Is the situation believable? I have absolutely no doubt some parents would (and have) abandon a child like Michael was abandoned. I can also imagine that Michael and his sister might try to keep this a secret for a very long time. Kids keep lots of secrets, as any parent knows. What I question is, would Michael’s dad really, truly drop him at the airport and drive away. Yes, he is characterized as callous enough and self-centered enough to do this. But is he stupid enough? Not only are we given no more than a few fleeting glimpses into why Michael was such a disappointment to his father, we see his father as a white collar professional. He’s in marketing, for heaven’s sake! He would know that dumping an eight-year-old at an airport could lead to some pretty severe consequences. Legal consequences like formal charges, like handcuffs and hearings, and personal ones like losing his job and reputation. Why risk this when a simple phone call, “Hey, I don’t want the kid, so get him a ticket and I’ll send him back,” would suffice? Or even walking him into the airport, checking him in with a ticket (perfectly legal), and leaving forever. But pulling up to the curb, pushing the kid out, roaring away? I’m not buying it.

Now that that’s over, why did I find this book meaningful? For one, I appreciated the single, simple plot thread. I wanted so badly for the secret to come out before Michael destroyed himself; wanted so badly for justice. I was emotionally hooked, and I could see myself in each and every character.

I understood the “kicked-puppy” sort of love of Michael. See, I had a dog once (several times, actually). On one occasion, I opened the hatch to the Jeep and out he leaped and the wind whipped him away. Or so it seemed. He never takes off like that, but perhaps he’d caught the scent of some turkeys in the woods? Or a deer? I followed him to the back yard where I found him bolting down hunks of last week’s nasty cornbread that I’d dumped on the feeder. “NO!” echoed to the next road (a mile away), and he took off again. I followed, leaping through knee-deep snow somewhat less gracefully than him. I caught him (caught up with him, more like) back at the garage where he was licking the last of the cornbread crumbs off his lips. I put on the collar and leash and did some remedial “Thou shalt not eat Anything except what I give you!” lessons.

After this I had the most fawning, loving, attentive dog on the planet. I’d whisper sit and his rump would hit the floor with a thud. His desire to please me, his (now undisputed) pack leader, blew me away.

Sort of like Michael. Abandoned at the airport and still absolutely devoted to his father. Michael longs for him, is willing to forgive him anything. Let’s just say that as a mother, a daughter, it touched a cord.

Now take the middle sister, Lily. She despises the villain who hurt her little brother. So much so that she won’t speak to him, see him, have a relationship with him at all. Again, a feeling I know.

And the elder sister Rebecca (funny parallel, that), wants, on the one hand, to make her father confess every despicable thing he did. Yet a little like Michael, she’s not ready to throw away her love, nor her father’s love (if you can call it that) for her. Well. The similarities I have with her character don’t end in the name.

Even with some questions about plausibility, Cooney has crafted a fine, compelling story that sings with emotional truth. So much so that I almost, almost wrote a letter to the author thanking her. Not something I’ve ever done, but who knows. Maybe someday I will.