Middle of Nowhere
(2012) is a realistic novel for middle-grade readers by Canadian author Caroline Adderson. The story follows twelve-year-old Curtis who attempts to take care of his younger brother, Artie, when their mom does not return home from work. Curtis finally confides in Mrs. Burt, an elderly neighbor, who takes the boys to her lakeside cabin to escape the notice of social services. While Artie grows closer to Mrs. Burt, Curtis struggles to maintain his faith that their mom will return. In Middle of Nowhere
, Adderson explores themes of family relationships, abandonment, and trust. The novel won the Shelia A. Egoff Children’s Literature Prize and was an OLA Best Bet selection for 2012.
First-person narrator Curtis is 100 percent positive that his mom would not leave him—again. Unfortunately, it has happened before when Curtis was in kindergarten. His mom was chasing after her then-boyfriend and failed to pick him up from school. Curtis ended up in a foster home where he was abused by his foster brother, Brandon Pennypacker. Curtis’s mom worked hard to get Curtis back, promising she would never leave him. Curtis believes her. He knows her greatest treasure is the first baby tooth he lost in the Pennypacker’s home. His mom tries hard to better their lives: She has a night job at the local gas station and takes classes to get her high-school equivalency degree. She wants to be a nurse. Curtis trusts her absolutely.
Nevertheless, as time goes by and she still does not come home, Curtis begins to lose confidence. Curtis and five-year-old Artie keep going to school, but their teachers are getting suspicious, wondering if something is wrong at home. Curtis fields phone calls from his mom’s boss, who fires her for not showing up for her shift. Curtis also talks with their landlord, who demands the rent. The boys are running out of food, so Curtis buys groceries on his mother’s credit card until it is maxed out. Curtis knows he must keep his mom’s disappearance a secret or he and Artie will be separated and sent to foster care.
Mrs. Burt, a feisty, white-haired old lady across the street pays Curtis to do errands for her. A recent accident now forces her to use a walker and she has trouble doing things on her own. She fears that her lawyer-daughter, Marianne, will put her in a retirement community. Curtis comes to trust Mrs. Burt. He tells her about their situation. She helps them navigate their mother’s mounting bills and cooks great meals for them. When the three see the police going into Curtis’s apartment, Curtis thinks they’ll be evicted and sent to foster care. Mrs. Burt suggests the boys move in with her. Curtis agrees. To avoid further notice, Mrs. Burt and the boys “abscond” together to Mrs. Burt’s remote wilderness cabin. She tells them, “We’re helping each other out.” Curtis leaves a note for his mother in the box holding his baby tooth.
The cabin is old and suffering from squirrel damage. Once the boys clean it out, they have the best summer of their lives. They learn to fish and make bonfires. Curtis builds an outhouse and chops wood. They swim in the lake and enjoy living with Mrs. Burt, who dotes on the boys. She tells them stories, sings with them, and brings them everything they want. Artie overcomes many of his fears—including falling into the toilet—and bonds closely with Mrs. Burt. He seems to forget about their mom. When they go into town to buy supplies, Curtis calls his mom, but no one answers, and eventually, the phone is disconnected. When Curtis is fishing or picking blueberries or swimming, he doesn’t think about his mom, later his worries return. Curtis learns that Mrs. Burt’s young son, Clyde, drowned in the lake many years ago. Curtis thinks that Mrs. Burt is poisoning Artie against their mom, but Mrs. Burt says she is trying to help him get over the loss of their mom. At first, Curtis is angry with Mrs. Burt, then he realizes she is right. He feels the weight of his worry disappears.
When Curtis discovers that Mrs. Burt plans to overwinter in the cabin, Curtis gets suspicious. He suggests they tell social services that the boys want to live with Mrs. Burt. She refuses, saying they would never let an old person like her take care of the boys. She also insists they don’t need to go to school, that she will teach them. Mrs. Burt refuses to take them back to the city. Growing fearful, Curtis tries to think of ways he and Artie can escape. Mrs. Burt angrily and emotionally agrees to take them home, then suffers a stroke. Curtis bravely swims the frigid lake to get help from their nearest neighbor, Mr. Munro.
Curtis tells the entire story to Mrs. Burt’s daughter, Marianne, in a hotel room across from the hospital. Marianne apologizes for her mother’s behavior. Curtis and Artie happily reunite with their mom. She was hit by a car on the way to work, suffered a crushed leg, and was in a coma. The first thing she did when she awoke was to ask where her children were. Curtis learns that Mrs. Burt knew their mother was in the hospital, but he is not angry with her. He visits Mrs. Burt in the hospital, understanding that she helped them, and they helped her—and they can continue to help her recover from her stroke.