“The Trouble with Goats and Sheep”: by Joanna Cannon, Scribner. Copyright 2015. 353 pages, $25 hardcover, paperback $17, Kindle $13.
Residents of a working class housing estate in the British midlands suffer a crisis of conscience when Mrs. Creasy, the repository of many neighborhood secrets, goes missing during the rainless summer of 1976. Ten-year-olds Grace and Tilly mount a search for both Mrs. Creasy and for God over the summer after being inspired by the local Vicar at the Church Hall.
Outgoing Grace and fragile Tilly interview Mrs. Creasy’s surprising confidantes among the neighbors in the guise of their search for God. They question a forgetful senior citizen, a middle-aged bachelor accused of suspicious behavior, a substance-abusing single mother, and the missing’s woman’s distraught husband. Their quest is to distinguish the Sheep, the righteous, from the Goats, the sinners.
By bent of inquisitiveness, Grace and Tilly discover old photos that show undisclosed prior associations and discover that the grown-ups have created a wall of silence related to prior neighborhood events some ten years before. Both girls are perceptive child observers and discern that they are being told a variety of half-truths that make it evident that the neighborhood is prone to being judgmental and that no one is truly blameless.
Perhaps the brunt of the neighbor’s wrath is visited upon the local pariah, Walter Bishop, a reclusive loner suspected of being a pedophile by neighborhood public opinion. Mrs. Roper, an opinionated neighbor woman reflects: “There are decent people, and then there are the weird ones, the ones who don’t belong. The ones who cause the rest of us problems” Tilly responds, “Goats and Sheep…It’s the way God looks at it”.
Other unsettling developments to neighborhood sensibilities include the arrival of the first East Indian family on the street and the appearance of a mysterious religious image of Jesus that inspires an impromptu neighborhood vigil. The vigil promises to upset the established social pecking order among the local residents and involves who can get his or her yard chair closest to the religious icon, thus being closest to Jesus.
Will the neighbors let bygones be bygones or will the newfound religious relic and the strain of scrutiny from a missing-persons case multiply existing divides into irreconcilable differences? First novelist Joanne Cannon, a British psychiatrist, uses the voices of children to examine human foibles and group dynamics with a deft and authentic voice. Her second book, released this year, is “Three Things About Elsie”.
Lisa Kobrin is the Reference Manager and Genealogy Librarian at the May Memorial Library. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (336) 229-3588.