Before She Was Helen

Helen Stephens lives a quiet life in Sun City, a retirement community in South Carolina. She regularly plays cards in the clubhouse with other residents of the complex, including her neighbors Joyce and Johnny. While she is mostly retired, she continues teaching some Latin classes at a local high school. She has what she needs and most of what she wants. But a single careless act will set in motion a series of events that will upend, and ultimately threaten, Helen’s quiet life in Caroline B. Cooney’s new novel 

As Helen begins another day, she sends her daily text to Dom, her next-door neighbor, to check in and make sure he is OK. Dom has never been particularly friendly, and can be decidedly unpleasant, but he is her neighbor. So, when he fails to respond to her text as he normally does, Helen goes next door to check on him, using the key Dom gave her for this purpose. Dom is nowhere to be found, but while looking for him, Helen sees a lovely glass sculpture that is unlike anything she has ever seen before. Without really thinking it through, Helen takes a photo of the sculpture with her phone and forwards it to her grandniece and grandnephew, Harper and Bentley.

Bentley and Harper do not know Helen Stephens. They receive the photo from their great aunt Clemmie. Clemmie, or Clementine Lakefield, has for over fifty years lived her life under the name Helen Stephens. She has done so because of the terrible things that were done to her, and that she did, as Clementine. And now, because of that single photo she sent to her niece and nephew all of her careful work and planning for over half a century will be at risk. Because Helen/Clemmie really knows nothing about Dom, who he really is or what that sculpture represents. And that sculpture belongs to someone who will stop at nothing to get it back.

In Before She Was Helen, Caroline B. Cooney has written a novel that is part mystery, part thriller, and part historical novel along with a healthy dose of observations regarding societal norms and how they have changed over the decades. The novel’s protagonist, Clemmie/Helen, is a powerful guide as readers follow her journey, beginning in the 1950s and proceeding through the following decades, as female agency develops and strengthens. While younger readers may find it difficult to understand why Clemmie would accept the circumstances in which she was trapped, and ultimately escapes, Cooney does a marvelous job of conveying just how restrictive societal mores were in the past and how they have loosened over the years. The result is a portrait of a strong young woman who created a resourceful escape for herself when the dominant culture failed her.

Cooney also illustrates how even the most innocuous of actions online can have unwanted, and possibly dangerous, outcomes and why it is always best to consider,  thoughtfully the potential results before hitting send.

Most welcome of all is Cooney’s characterization of the seniors living in the Sun City retirement community. While Cooney does take advantage of, and in some ways confirms, some of the stereotypes long held regarding seniors, she also provides a portrait of seniors as resourceful, thoughtful and able to deal with a surprising series of events that threatens themselves and their friends/family. This novel will appeal to readers of all ages.

Author interview is here.