From reviewer Karen Heunemann's blog, "That Which Matters."
by Karyn Hueneman
What is it about Lizzie? Why, out of all of the marvellous protagonists that YA literature contains, does Lizzie captivate me? Every time I read Who is Frances Rain?—and this is the fourth time—I want to know more of Lizzie’s story: I want to see how her final years of high school progress; I want to know (despite statistics regarding the permanency of high school romances) more about her relationship with Alex; I want to follow her on the rocky road that the next few years will be. For, once again, Margaret Buffie has created a novel in which there are no solid answers in the end, only hope and promise. Her characters are so real, in both their flaws and their strengths that we implicitly trust in the truth of the narrative, and I at least want to travel with the characters for quite a while longer.
The plot of the novel is fairly simple. Lizzie’s dad has left them, which is difficult for the whole family, but especially for her annoying older brother, Evan. Her mother has recently remarried, and Lizzie and Evan both actively reject Tim, the new husband, and his legitimate attempts to both fit in to and help the family. Here, Buffie’s ability at characterization shines, for Lizzie, Evan, and Tim are all presented in honest human terms: no sugar coating to Evan’s rudeness or Lizzie’s self-centred attempts to sabotage Tim’s positive contributions. Eventually, not surprisingly, Tim can take no more and leaves. This is not a spoiler; it is the guaranteed outcome of the narrative situation Buffie constructs so deftly. But while it is the basic premise of the plot, it is also not the central point. Lizzie’s relationships with Tim—and Evan, and her mother—are a vehicle for the novel’s message that family—and indeed community—does not function unless there is communication, understanding, and forgiveness amongst its members. This is a lesson that Lizzie must learn, and she does so not only through her experiences—both contemporary and paranormal—but also through the pointed jibes of those around her who have had quite enough of her selfishness. At one point, Alex, who has been her brother’s summer friend since childhood, tells her: “You’re running a close neck-and-neck race with Evan for pill of the year, I don’t know why I bother with you” (114). Sometimes we need to hear comments like this; they pull us out of our more self-indulgent emotional moments.
While all of the clues to help her develop a more balance perspective on her family and her own role within it are present in her contemporary world, what really feeds Lizzie’s budding empathy is her experience on Rain Island, where she meets the ghost of Frances Rain. Who is Frances Rain? is more than just an interesting approach to the time-slip novel; Lizzie’s experience of the past crosses the borders of believability in a way that most time-slip novels remain pure fantasy. What she learns through helping Frances Rain’s ghost teaches Lizzie a lot about personal strength and responsibility; by helping Frances Rain find peace, she helps herself understand the difference in degree between her own troubles and those of the adults around her.
Who is Frances Rain? has been challenged and banned a number of times, for its inclusion of both the paranormal and an unwed mother. The illegitimate child in Buffie’s book is born in the early years of the twentieth century, but more than suggesting that such happenings belong in the past and our society has improved since then (a trope that was common in the first 6 decades of the twentieth century), Buffie is providing a continuity between women of the past and young women such as Lizzie, who are learning to make their own way in our modern world. The physical and emotional fortitude Frances Rain presents is a strength that both Lizzie and the reader can draw on in their own lives: Frances Rain is a part of Lizzie’s past, and shows Lizzie a way to move forward into her future. Perhaps that is why I want Lizzie’s story to go on: I want to be part of her continuing to grow into the strong, self-sufficient woman who was Frances Rain.