Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

The Agony of Bun O'Keefe

The Agony of Bun O'Keefe

Heather Smith
For ages 14 and up
Penguin Random House Canada, 2017   ISBN: 978-0143198659

When she was just five years old Bun’s father walked out on his family. Ever since then Bun’s life has been very hard. Bun’s mother is a compulsive hoarder and quite frankly her only interest in life is to acquire most ‘stuff,’ even though most of what she brings home is junk. Bun’s mother’s lack of interest in her child means that Bun, for the most part, feels as if she is invisible. Her mother does not send her to school, she barely feeds her, and on the few occasions she speaks to the child what she says is cruel or unkind.

Bun takes solace in reading the books and watching the movies that her mother brings home. She hardly ever leaves the house, and never interacts with other people. As a result she is not like other people. She does not know how to joke or tease, she does not understand the nuances of language and expression, and she tends to take everything literally.

One day Bun’s mother tells her fourteen-year-old daughter to “get out!” and this is what Bun does. She leaves the house on a cold November day without outdoor clothes and ends up in St. John. Soon after she arrives, she meets a young man busking on the side of the road. As it turns out, Bun is very lucky that she meets Busker Boy because he is a kind person who gives Bun something warm to wear, and he buys her a hot drink and some cookies. Bun stays with Busker Boy, and at the end of the day she ends up going to the house where he lives. Busker Boy gives Bun his bed and when she asks if he can leave the light on until she falls asleep he agrees.

The next morning the two young people continue to get to know one another. Busker Boy treats Bun as if she is a little sister that he needs to watch over. Though he does not know her whole story yet, he knows enough about the world that he understands that she is hurt and lost and that that she needs to be protected. Bun is very naïve and Busker Boy tells her that she needs to be “more careful.” “You can’t just talk to anybody,” he adds. He especially warns Bun not to have anything to do with the landlord who lives in the attic.

Over the next few days Bun meets the other residents in the house. There is Bug Eyes who has left her family home because she cannot take her parents’ heavy religion any more. There is Chef, who has a menial job in a kitchen, though he deserves to be the chef. Then there is Cher, a gay drag queen who is estranged from his family because he won’t toe the line and be the straight doctor that they want him to be.

Like Busker Boy Chef, Bug Eyes, and Cher all do their part to take care of Bun, and she slowly starts to discover that there is a lot more to life than she imagined. Chef feeds her delicious food that is lovingly prepared. Bug Eyes curls her hair and compliments her, which Bun finds astonishing. Cher takes Bun shopping and he makes her feel that she us a part of something that is good and right. For the first time since her father walked out Bun is even a part of a Christmas celebration.

Then something truly unthinkable happens, and in the aftermath Bun breaks the most important promise that she made to Busker Boy. What follows tests Bun’s little family to the limits.

This remarkable book is funny, sweet, bitterly painful, and heartwarming. The story takes readers on a journey that helps us to see how love can truly prevail under the most trying of circumstances. We are given hope that even when things are horribly wrong in so many ways, kindness and compassion truly can make life better.