Review of "The Kindness of Strangers"

By Katrina Kittle
Harper Perennial, 2006
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Oct 9th 2007
The Kindness of Strangers

The description of The Kindness of Strangers on the book cover is rather vague, referring to a "shocking and unbelievable revelation" learned by Sarah Laden, a woman with two boys living in Ohio.  The revelation, which happens quite early on in the story, is about Sarah's best friend Courtney: Courtney had been participating with her husband in the sexual abuse of their eleven-year-old son, Jordan.  When Jordan's parents are in prison, Sarah takes him into her home and becomes a foster mother to him. 

Sarah has had her own share of problems: her husband died a few years ago, quite suddenly, from cancer.  Her two sons, Nate, 16, and Danny, 11, are both going through difficulties.  Nate has had discipline problems, and Danny's friendship with Jordan, who had been his best friend, recently came to an abrupt end but he will not say why.  Sarah often feels angry with her husband Roy for dying and leaving her with so much responsibility, and she also misses him terribly.  Yet she is so shocked by Jordan's abuse that she is ready to take on more responsibility.  The main question in the plot is how Jordan will fare as the legal case against his parents proceeds, and whether he will have to go back to live with his mother, for whom he apparently still feels great love. 

Kittle has clearly done research into child abuse, from how the courts deal with it to how it psychologically affects its victims.  She works many of these details into the plot, so the book is very instructive.  Her writing is ambitious, presenting each chapter from the point of view of one of the main characters, forcing the reader to adopt different perspectives.  Yet the writing is often rather clunky.  In the first chapter, she goes to her garden to see a robin fiercely guarding her eggs, and she gets pecked by the bird.  It's a heavy handed image, alerting readers to the fact that the book is all about the relation between mothers and their children, and what it takes to be a good mother. 

Nevertheless, The Kindness of Strangers is a sensitive portrayal of how children and adults react to the sexual abuse of minors, and the confusion it can cause in teens.  The developing sexual relationship between Nate and his girlfriend Mackenzie is sensitively portrayed and presented as in contrast to the horrible sexual experiences of Jordan.  Kittle crams a great deal into the book, with impressive effect. While many books in recent decades have portrayed the effect of revelations of sexual abuse long after it has happened, it is far more unusual for a book to show the discovery of currently occurring sexual use of children.  This makes the book both memorable and moving, and greatly mitigate the effects of its stylistic flaws. 

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© 2007 Christian Perring

Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.


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