A tale of innocence and adolescence will crack your heart right open. Lullabies for Little Criminals is the coming-of-age story of Baby, who lives mostly on the streets of Montreal with her father Jules, a drug addict.
O’Neill’s bildungsroman looks at the myriad of issues surrounding street kid culture. Readers are forced to question why Baby can’t seem to do the right thing and turn her life around when she is presented with so many opportunities. She’s smart, she’s creative, and there are certainly a number of guardians she comes across who love and support her. Yet, she is always drawn back to the streets of Montreal with its drug dealers, prostitutes, and pimps.
You want so badly for Baby to turn it all around that it’s easy to blame her for falling off the tracks. Frustration with her as a protagonist propels you through the novel — an emotion which O’Neill draws out constantly as the novel taunts you with many possible happy endings. However, it is ultimately up to Baby’s choice and the empathy which you build with her makes each wasted chance hurt that much more. As a reader I became attached to Baby in a familial way, wanting the best for her but being stuck in a position in which I must accept her agency. That, by far, is the novel’s greatest triumph.
Agency, particularly for female characters, is often stunted and as constructions of an author’s imagination it is difficult to suppress the feeling that a protagonist is but a vehicle of plot.
Baby’s choices, whether they can be judged good or bad, represent her freedom to create her own identity. She has ample opportunity to discover what kind of person she is and wants, and her self-reflection throughout the book gives a sense that she is both old and so young. The maturity which comes with having to provide for herself is juxtaposed with her childlike fascination with the dolls, animals, and toys which occupy her time. In Baby an impression of freedom is present. She does not follow what best suits the narrative arc, in fact, at times the story feels stunted by repetition as she returns to life on the street over and over. Seeing how her father treats her while he is high and understanding how much Baby prefers the flood of compliments and praise which comes with it, makes you understand how a child can follow in the footsteps of their parents’ addictions despite consciously knowing its downfalls. You become trapped with Baby into the experience of a growing girl trying to find a life outside of the only world she has ever known. The burden of escape becomes so heavy.
The pop art-esque cover suits Baby’s mix of urban childhood: artificial and plastic but innocuous like the dolls she drags around Montreal. The theme of city versus countryside settings is also very much at play, hinting at the pastoral myth without disrupting it. Baby never seems to reach the real countryside where innocence lasts. O’Neill’s award-winning novel is a lullaby in the truest sense of the word. The book is a poetic dedication to youth everywhere who are waking up to the harsher realities of adulthood. It is a comfort story to those who believe there is no freedom in the streets.