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Contemporary Realistic Fiction, Family, LOVELACE nominee 2020, Middle Grade Readers

GREETINGS FROM WITNESS PROTECTION by Jake Burt…2020 LOVELACE nominee Division II

After finishing Greetings from Witness Protection I find myself stewing in irritation.  This is why: parts of the story are extremely well crafted, but the parts that fall flat do so in a way that detracts from the best parts of the book; as a result, the whole thing never completely came together for me.

The main character is 13-year-old Nicki Demere.  Raised primarily by her Grandmother because her father is in prison and her mother left soon after her birth, Nicki has been in the foster care system for five years following her Grammy’s death.  Two US Marshals come to the Group Home where Nicki is staying to recruit her for a new Family Program in Witness Protection (WITSEC).  The theory for the program is that criminals who are looking for a family of three will ignore a new family comprised of four members instead–and therefore protect their true identities. The plan is for Nicki to join a family (mother, father and son) as their daughter; all four will be relocated and receive new identities.  Nicki discovers through the Marshals that her father was paroled from prison two years ago.  The assumption by the Marshals is that Nicki will be a good fit for their new ‘Family’ program because, ostensibly, no one is ever going to notice that she is gone or come looking for her.

This premise is the reason I just never completely gave myself over to the story.  I think that in this case the fact that I am not in the targeted reading group of the book is probably the biggest obstacle.  The idea that the federal government would recruit children from foster care–specifically because they have no familial connections–and put them in a position where they are ‘trained’ and told they are responsible for the safety of other human beings is–in addition to being ridiculous–also incredibly irresponsible. This is the kind of premise that a younger reader would be much more able to accept.  I remember watching Disney movies with outlandish plots and escapades as a child and my parents shaking their heads and commenting on how ‘that would never happen’ and it was ‘so ridiculous.’  And the truth is, at that age:  I didn’t care. I was enjoying the movie.  Greetings from Witness Protection angered me because the plot has adults putting a child in an extremely dangerous situation and making her responsible for other people’s lives.

There are some wonderful aspects to Nicki’s story. She has an incredibly well-developed backstory which adds genuineness to the most touching scenes in the book.  The chapter where she is confronted by her new ‘mom’ about her history and current struggle with kleptomania is one of the tenderest I have ever read in young people’s literature. The moments when Nicki’s character is able to look at her own mixed emotions, desires and regrets (such a realistic struggle in those middle years) are poignantly written.  Burt clearly did research on both WITSEC and pickpocketing in order to make the circumstances of the plot play out logically. (Logical does not equal realistic.)

For me, Greetings from Witness Protection was never able to overcome the flawed premise at its foundation–despite some great moments sprinkled throughout Nicki’s story. Perhaps younger readers–who will be more willing to accept the premise at face value–will enjoy the story of Nicki’s desire for and creation of a family more completely than I did.  Although I would never discourage anyone from reading Greetings from Witness Protection, I wouldn’t recommend it either.

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