Suzanne LaFleur

Eight Keys

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Eight Keys Summary

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Suzanne LaFleur’s 2011 novel, Eight Keys, follows Elise Bertrand, who has always lived in a large house with her loving aunt and uncle because her parents died when she was very young. Behind the house where Elise grew up is a barn with eight mysteriously locked doors on the second floor that have always puzzled her. Soon after she turns twelve, Elise receives a key that was left to her by her father. The key unlocks one of the eight enigmatic doors upstairs in the barn, sending her on a journey of discovery about her family and herself. An emotionally authentic coming-of-age story, Eight Keys presents layered characters and relationships that portray the uncertainties of adolescence.

As the novel opens, Elise is living with her Aunt Bessie and her Uncle Hugh because her parents have long been dead. Elise, eleven years old as summer vacation is ending, is preparing to enter middle school. She and Franklin, her best friend, have spent the summer playing for hours in the woods and fields of their farms. One day, during a game of Knights, Elise falls down and scrapes her legs. She is anxious about how she will look the following day, the first day of school.

Elise and Franklin start sixth grade and everything feels wrong. They are bullied, they don’t fit in, and Franklin starts acting very babyish. Elise struggles to make new friends while keeping her old ones. She becomes the target of Amanda, who is beautiful, stylish, and very cruel. Amanda ridicules Elise for her scraped legs and for playing make-believe with Franklin. Franklin doesn’t seem to care about Amanda or anyone else making fun of him, but Elise is deeply hurt and troubled by the bullying. She slowly begins to distance herself from Franklin, telling him they are too old to play make-believe anymore. Elise also finds herself struggling in school due to the academic demands of middle school. She cannot keep up with her homework and falls far behind in school.

Everything becomes more complicated for Elise when her Aunt Annie and her baby, Ava, move into Aunt Bessie and Uncle Hugh’s house. Elise’s aunt and uncle are concerned about Elise because they know something isn’t right. Elise hesitates to inform her family about her struggles because she is embarrassed and does not think they will understand.

At school, Elise starts to form a friendship with Caroline. Caroline, as it turns out, has been best friends with Amanda for a long time. She explains to Elise that she is unsure why Amanda is acting so cruelly because she never acted like that before.

When Elise turns twelve, Uncle Hugh reminds her that getting older each year means new responsibilities. He encourages her to do well in school and keep up with her homework. For her birthday each year, Elise is given a letter from her dead father. He wrote the letters nine years ago when he was dying of cancer. Elise is devastated when she learns that this will be the last letter she receives. However, in the letter, Elise’s father informs her that she will soon be given a key to another surprise. It turns out that Elise will be given eight keys over the next several months, each key unlocking one of the doors on the second floor of the barn behind the house that have remained mysteriously locked for all of Elise’s life.

Elise works with Caroline and Franklin on her journey to discover the mystery of the eight locked doors. As she opens each one, she comes to learn important things about herself, her family, and her father’s wishes for Elise’s life. One room is filled with photographs of Elise and her family. There is a note from her father that urges her to get to know her family and to appreciate what they have to offer her. Another room is vacant, a symbol of Elise’s life and all the possibilities she has to fill her life with.

These experiences help Elise to recognize the value of her family and to finally open up to them about her struggles in school. She also reconciles her tense relationship with Franklin. Finally, she deals with Amanda’s bullying because she has become a stronger, more self-assured person. At the end of the novel, Elise begins filling the empty room with the things that matter to her.

LaFleur’s portrait of Elise reveals the apprehensions of adolescence and the anxieties of longing to fit in. This is compounded by Elise’s pain at having lost her parents at a young age. Ultimately, Elise must choose what she values in her relationships. As she discovers her own identity, Elise receives pieces of her past that allow her to form a picture of where she comes from and where she is going. She eventually learns that change happens once she chooses the path she would like to take.