Taking Terri Mueller by Norma Fox Mazer
originally published 1981
William Morrow & Co, 1st printing, 1983
Genre: Young adult, suspense, juvanalia
Book Report: Thirteen-year-old Terri and her beloved father Phil never stay in one place long. By car, or camper, they travel around the United States, going wherever Phil’s restless feet take them, with only each other and their dog Barkley for company. In Ann Arbor, Michigan, they meet a woman named Nancy and her young son Leif while apartment hunting. As they settle in, Phil starts dating Nancy, and it gets serious, while Terri makes another in a long line of best friends, Shauna. It seems like maybe they might be able to stick around somewhere for once, but then Terri’s Aunt Vivian visits, and Terri overhears something that makes her finally question their lives. Why must they always keep moving? Why are there so many inconsistencies in Phil’s explanations? Why won’t Phil ever tell Terri about her long-dead mother? And finally as her suspicions grow Terri wonders what really happened to her mother. Is she even dead?
Once the truth is out, there is no putting it back the way it was again, and Terri is caught between her past and her present.
Caroline B. Cooney, step aside. Norma Fox Mazer (NMF to the initiated) won a Edgar Award for this sucker. If you don’t get that reference, it’s okay, but it’s a major spoiler, so don’t read below the jump if you’re at all concerned about that.
HAHA, YEAH, SUCK IT, CAROLINE B. That damn The Face on the Milk Carton was EVERYWHERE when I was ten or so. Everyone read it, and thought it was awesome, and it was even made into a movie. (Yeah, I loved it, too. I still have my copy. I might even have two copies.) Shit, it was an entire series (which I didn’t realize till a few months back, though I did read the sequel, Whatever Happened to Janie?). And that sucks because it’s not that great a book (and I hear the later installments get really bad, a case of milking a cash cow for all it’s got). But Taking Terri Mueller? Superfantastic. I cried.
TTM is quietly suspenseful, focusing on Terri’s internal life as she gradually becomes aware that there’s something wrong with her life with Phil. And once the truth is out, it’s not so simple. Unlike TfotMC, the Terri’s kidnapper isn’t a stranger, it’s her own father after a bitter divorce and custody battle. Rather than risk Terri’s moving overseas with her mother Kathryn’s new husband (which actually throws a little monkeywrench into our sympathies), Phil takes Terri and runs, telling her that her mother is dead, taking a precious part of her life from her. Though she finds out what he’s done, Terri still loves her father; he’s raised her and loved her, and as far as she can remember, it’s been the two of them (and Barkley!).
But now she has a mother, across the country in California. After contacting her in a phonebooth phone call that is just HEARTBREAKING, Terri has to reconcile her love for her father and her resentment at what she missed because of him with her desire to meet and love her mother. Terri is torn by her need to protect her father and herself, and her need to open up to her mother, and it makes for riveting and moving reading. But even in the midst of her superrough existential trauma, Terri has time to feud with her best friend and crush on a boy at school. Oh NMF, you fox! How authentic is that?! She also takes a moment to step into Phil’s skin when Terri is badgering him to come clean, letting us see his defensiveness and resentment and especially the love for Terri that makes him act so wrongheaded.To add complexity, Terri’s mother’s actions years before would have resulted in Terri’s never knowing her father, which makes the whole scenario that much trickier.
This was the third Norma Fox Mazer that I read, along with Babyface (and Silver years ago); I devoured them both in one sitting the night I checked them out of the library. (If there is a better testament to entertainment value, I don’t know what it is.)
Read also: Babyface and Silver by Norma Fox Mazer, The Face on the Milk Carton by Caroline B. Cooney, Deenie and Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume
Cover: Classic Eighties YA cover, with that pivotal moment of Terri in the phonebooth, trying to reach her mother. Puffy down vest FTW!
Then something else she had almost forgotten flashed into her mind. The year before at Christmas she had told her father she wanted to send her aunt a card. He had said, “Sure thing,” but about a week later when she asked for Vivian’s address, he had said, “I thought you wanted me to do it, Terri. I sent her a card the other day.”
Standing there now, staring at the mute phone, Terri remembered exactly how casually she had said, “Oh, sure, that’s okay.” She’d put the card away and forgotten about it. Forgotten, too, how in some tiny, almost hidden-from herself part of her mind, she had known that her father had not wanted to give her Vivian’s address.