On a hot July afternoon, two eleven year-old girls are sent home early from a birthday party. One of them, Ronnie, (Veronica Fuller), has been acting out inappropriately - her usual rebellious behavior - thus the banishment. Ronnie is prone to dark moods. Her companion, Alice, (Alice Manning), a shy, chubby girl who is innocent of any misbehavior, has to leave also, so her friend won't have to walk home alone. Actually, Alice doesn't really consider Ronnie a friend. Her mother, Helen, insists that Alice play with Ronnie, at least in the summertime, when Alice's schoolmates from St. William of York are at camp. Helen Manning, a single mom, doesn't have enough money to send Alice away for the summer months, or to continue with her private schooling after grade school. So Alice thinks of Ronnie as a "summertime-only friend," and a fellow "doesn't-have-a-pool-membership girl." Alice is a good girl, she believes, along with almost everyone else. She is very bright, although not anywhere near as creative or as artistic as her mother, which worries her. She so wants to please. Ronnie, on the other hand, comes from a very dysfunctional, working-class family, who scream a lot and steal from each other, and "the parents don't care what their kids watch on TV."
On the way home that July day, Ronnie decides she wants to take a shortcut through a really nice neighborhood, where the houses are fancier and the lawns more spacious. Ronnie spots a baby carriage on the porch of the biggest, prettiest house on the street. The two girls decide that the baby has been left carelessly in the sun and heat too long. The carriage is also too close to the steps and there could be an accident. So they decide to take the baby, to care for her better than her parents are doing.
Four days later, the baby's dead body is found by rookie cop, Nancy Porter, in a hut in Baltimore's Leakin Park. The child had been suffocated. Both girls are arrested. Although no clear account of the story emerges, they do admit to taking the baby. Ronnie and Alice are convicted and sentenced to spend the next seven years, until their eighteenth birthdays, in separate juvenile detention facilities, one a somewhat harsher institution than the other.
When the two are released, young adults now, they are advised to avoid each other. Each one has the possibility to make a new start in life, find a job, go to community college. The only bonds which remain between Alice and Ronnie are the secrets they hold close, and their bewildered reentry into a world where they have no past. As juveniles, their names were never released to the public.
Within a brief period after the girls gain their freedom, several small children begin to disappear from public places, only to be found again relatively quickly, and always on the premises where they were "lost." Then another toddler disappears, and this one is not found. The circumstances are chillingly similar to the abduction case seven years before. Now Alice's and Ronnie's parents, their lawyers, and the police, must discover and confront the shattering truths they did not push hard enough to find out years earlier. Otherwise, another family will lose their child.
This is a disturbing, unsettling novel with a stunning conclusion. The author's premise is that, perhaps, the most shocking crimes are committed by children. Or is the public more shocked that children are capable of commiting murder? Do eleven year-olds really understand what they are doing when they take a life? At what age do we prosecute children as adults for heinous crimes they commit? Ms. Lippman appears to believe that children are just as capable of calculation, premeditation and manipulation as anyone else. The reader is left to make his/her own decision.
All the characters in "Every Secret Thing" share some major commonalities. Adults and children alike, all long for acceptance by their peers. Don't we all? They all have secrets and all of them share serious emotional pain. I do think that apart from Ronnie, Alice and Helen Manning, (who is a complex woman and well portrayed), the characters are rather one-dimensional. Sharon Kerpelman was Alice's original lawyer, and is filled with guilt that she didn't work out a better deal for her client. She has stayed in touch with Alice during her detention period, and wants to act as a mentor now that the girl is free. Alice doesn't seem to care one way or the other. Baltimore homicide Detective Nancy Porter feels she has to prove she earned her rapid rise in the department. That her swift move from rookie to county detective was not because of her fluke find years before, nor because of family nepotism. Cynthia Barnes, the mother of the murdered child, is still grief-stricken, and her pain and guilt take the form of obsession for revenge. The character of reporter Mira Jenkins is totally flat. I don't really understand her place in the book, or the author's attempt to develop her. She obviously represents the presence of the press - but her part could have been played anonymously and the narrative honed. As is, many extraneous personages are introduced needlessly. I don't find any of the characters particularly likeable - but that's not a necessary component to enjoy this book. Also, I find it odd that there are basically no male characters, just the detectives who pretty much remain in the background.
"Every Secret thing" is much more than a mystery or a suspense thriller. It is a study of the two girls and the tragedy they cause. The novel also deals with issues of race, class, the burden of peer pressure, the larger issue of children who commit crimes and when they should be tried as adults, and SECRETS. As usual, the author's writing is taut and her story a page-turner.