Heather Quarles

A Door Near Here

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A Door Near Here Summary

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Following the story of four middle-class siblings forced to fend for themselves after their mother descends into alcoholism, Heather Quarles’s middle-grade novel A Door Near Here (2000) explores the struggle of feeling hungry, tired, and dirty, while attempting to keep up appearances. Caught between the reality of teetering on the edge of stability and the need to project normality, the book’s protagonist finds a way to grow up and mature in terrible circumstances.

Fifteen-year-old Katherine Graham lives with her three siblings and her mother in a town outside of Washington, DC. Their father is no longer in the picture – after cheating on their mother, he left in order to be with the other woman. Now, their formerly mostly functional mother has fallen victim to her drinking problem. Having lost her job, she stays in bed most of the time, disconnected from the world, crying about the end of her marriage, neglecting her children, and eventually only focused on where her next drink is coming from.

At first, Katherine thinks she can cope with this disaster, taking charge of her younger siblings to keep them fed, clothed, and out of the foster care system. Katherine can no longer bicker with her younger sister, Tracey; instead, their sisterly relationship deepens as they come to depend on each other. At the same time, forced to acknowledge that her fourteen-year-old brother, Douglas, is losing weight at an alarming rate, Katherine tries to address his sickly appearance by giving him more food than she rations for the rest of the siblings. To top it all off, the three teens have to work together to keep their youngest sister, eight-year-old Alisa safe and protected from Child Protective Services.

However, weeks into their mother’s alcoholic stupor, reality sinks in. Although Douglas and Katherine are able to fix one-off disasters like an overflowing sink or a heating system that isn’t working well in the cold Virginia wintertime, the kids are running out of money, and they are having trouble keeping up the house alongside getting food and making sure they go to school every day.

At the same time, their sometimes telltale behavior and appearance arouse suspicion at St. Agnes, the all-girls Catholic school Katherine and Tracey attend. Particularly interested in parsing exactly what is going on is Mr. Dodgson, their religion teacher. Worried about Alisa being taken away by social services, Katherine makes up wild lies to explain away the things Mr. Dodgson has noticed.

The kids’ lives spin further and further out of control. To buy food, Katherine finds herself stealing money from her mother’s purse – something she feels terrible about, but something that is necessary when their mother is spending most of her cash on wine. Meanwhile, Tracey and Douglas have taken up smoking, despite Alisa’s desperate pleas for them to stop. Alisa is seemingly losing touch with reality, as she becomes deeply fixated on the world of Narnia, the fantasy realm described by C.S. Lewis in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. She is sure that if she could only find the magical lion Aslan, he will be able to cure her mother.

Things come to a head when Alisa’s school refuses to allow her to go to class – she is so caught up in the fantasy of finding Aslan that she doesn’t obey the school’s rules about not leaving school grounds. Unable to skip school to take care of her, Katherine and Tracey decide to bring her to St. Agnes with them. They hide her in the gym, but when she wanders out to try to find a bathroom, Mr. Dodgson finds her and questions her about what is going on. At last, Katherine confesses the whole truth: their mom’s alcoholism, the fact that they are running out of money and food, and the fact that their father is entirely absent from their life. The kindly Mr. Dodgson reveals that his own mother was also an alcoholic, and he also had had to resort to many of the same tricks that Katherine and her siblings have been using. He figured out that they were hiding something because he has become very good at spotting the signs of a disordered home.

Rather than contacting social services, as Katherine had feared, Mr. Dodgson reaches out to the Grahams’ father, who immediately returns when he realizes just how bad their living situation has become. The estranged family reunites, and the siblings move away from the DC area to live with their father and his new wife, Ophelia, in her mansion-like house in Grand Rapids, Michigan. At first, even though their father reveals that Ophelia had demanded that he return to the children to help them, their relationship with their father is deeply strained; everyone is forever walking on eggshells around each other, unsure how to make a connection again.

The novel ends on a hopeful note as the kids’ mother enters a rehab program, and their father builds a tree house in the Grand Rapids back yard just like the one they had back at their house in Washington.