One horrible day, Laurie Stratton comes down with one of those awful 24-hour bugs. (Or is it?) This means that she has to, gasp, cancel going to a party, which since she’s only seventeen, and still on fairly uncertain terms with her hot, popular, new boyfriend, seriously sucks.
Still, she figures that everything will be all right—until, that is, her annoying friends tell her that if she didn’t want to come to the party, she should have just said so, instead of going to the beach. Where they certainly saw her, even if Laurie knows—knows—she was sick in bed at the time. And the idea, she thinks, of A Stranger With My Face is just, well, ridiculous.
The start of the book is actually far more taut and suspenseful than this. Laurie is narrating from the clearly not-so-distant future, in a voice already filled with regret and fear; she notes that she is telling the narrative only because, of the three people she could talk to, two are gone, and the other one is just a kid. So is Laurie, still, but the narrator and the character both feel older. Plus, Laurie the narrator lets us know right from page 2 that “she”—not Laurie—is still there. And that Laurie is not convinced she will have time to write this book.
It’s a masterful introduction, adding as it does immediate suspense about the fates of those two people who are gone (turns out, not quite as bad as I originally thought), as well as some important information about Laurie: She tells us, immediately, that she doesn’t have her parents’ talents, and that she no longer loves her home, even though her description of it sounds absolutely marvelous. This is a terrified, depressed teenager, haunted—maybe—by a ghost.
After that first incident with the party, friends continue to tell her that they see Laurie in places where she clearly hasn’t been. It takes a new friend, Helen, to confirm that this other Laurie really is a real person—of sorts—and to suggest that, just maybe, Laurie has an identical twin sister. Laurie confronts her parents, discovering the truth: She does, indeed, have a twin. She, unlike her brother and sister, is adopted; her mother took only one twin because the other twin—Lia—felt wrong.
This is one of many, many, many, many clues that Lia is not, shall we say, here solely to catch up on family gossip and find her sister. At the same time, it’s rather difficult to blame Laurie for becoming enthralled by her twin: Laurie has just discovered, quite painfully, that her parents lied to her; she is having social problems at school, and, well… new twin! Someone willing to tell her everything about her family, including a few somewhat questionable stories about the Navajo. And who has mastered astral projection.
Uh, yes, about the Navajo. The novel does state, in text, that Navajo have certain special abilities, including astral projection. On first glance, this and other statements might suggest that this is a book full of Magical Native American stereotypes. Except there’s a twist: As it turns out, none of the people making these statements actually know much, if anything, about Navajo culture—also stated clearly in text. Including both of the half-Navajo twins: Laurie was raised white, and ends the novel still identifying as white, and Lia was generally fostered by whites.
Although Lia does know a little more, as it turns out, she’s lying about many things, so there’s no particular reason to trust her version. And her misrepresentations are revealed to be explicitly white misrepresentations. In the end, this turns out to be not a book about Native Americans, but rather about white beliefs about Native Americans—and about the dangers of attempting to whitewash and bury that heritage.
Granted, Lia seems to have been evil since birth, and what happens to her—or, I should say, around her—does not appear to be entirely due to the evils of the foster system or removing Native American children from their heritage. But Lia’s actions are also rooted in some very real and genuine issues with displacement and racism, and the very real issue that she is not getting raised by Navajo. Instead, she is raised by people who know nothing about her heritage—who, despite this, continue to make assumptions about her based on her heritage. Oddly, Laurie—growing up and passing as white—ends up doing much better until her heritage is revealed, forcing her to deal with various white stereotypes about Navajo.
(I missed the 2009 Lifetime movie based on this book, but it looks as if the film dealt with all of this by making everyone white. Moving on.)
The book has quite a few other good moments as well: a strong family background, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it romance (rendered a bit more difficult because the guy can never be really sure which twin he’s talking to), and a genuine mystery about Lia. Though to be honest, I’m not sure Lia entirely works for me as a character. She’s pretty much over-the-top evil, despite a slight attempt to make her background at least somewhat understandable. On the one hand, this partly helps lead to her defeat. On the other hand… I think I wanted a different motive. That also would have made it a bit harder to stop Lia, adding more suspense.
But despite this, or perhaps because of this, the plot still functions, providing some moments of genuine suspense. Although this book was also reissued after the arrival of the Internet, Duncan wisely chose not to integrate the Internet into this book—far, far too many narrative twists would not, and could not have happened, with a friend like Google and an app like Facebook. Which, in turn, would not have allowed most of what happens in the book. Which, again in turn, allows the book to probe into twin wells of wish fulfillment and primal fears: the hope of finally finding someone who is just like you, who will understand you, who will ensure that you never need to be alone again—and the fear that if something ever did happen to you, your family wouldn’t notice.
I have to admit to having very mixed feelings about the end—primarily because Laurie, the protagonist, doesn’t get to save herself, but is instead saved by others. To be fair, she’s partly saved by others because she’s had the intelligence to tell them the truth—which, given the way still others reacted when she tried to tell the truth, is saying something. At the same time, in both cases, she doesn’t exactly volunteer to tell the truth—she’s somewhat forced into it.
The ending has another issue, as well: We’re told about a character death, but the text also argues, more than once, that said character isn’t, well, dead dead—with textual support for this. That’s a classic horror trope; however, that, along with the somewhat ambiguous (for other reasons) ending leaves the novel feeling, well, incomplete.
That said, in many other ways this book works far better than Down a Dark Hall does. The ending has room to breathe, and despite some ambiguity, it is at least clear who is alive and who is dead (or mostly dead). For all its more-than-occasional moments of implausibility, it’s a fast, taut read.
Mari Ness lives in central Florida.