For the final week of Mystery Month, The Author Chronicles features author Lois Duncan. Lois is no one-trick pony. She has written magazine articles, children’s picture books, poetry, and adult nonfiction, but Lois is best known for her YA suspense novels, many of which have been made into TV movies. Her novel I Know What You Did Last Summer was made into a blockbuster film. Ten of her early YA novels are being updated and re-released through 2012 by Little, Brown. Stranger With My Face is one of those novels.
Laurie Stratton’s school year is shaping up to be perfect. She has a popular, handsome boyfriend; she is part of the “in” crowd; and she has a loving family. Everything starts falling apart when people (including her own family) begin accusing her of being in places she wasn’t and doing things she had not done. If it wasn’t her, who were these people seeing?
The truth proves stranger than Laurie could ever have imagined, and reveals an unknown twin sister who bitterly resents the life Laurie got—and wants it for herself. As Laurie battles her doppelganger, Laurie loses her supporters one by one. A fatally wrong decision leaves Laurie’s family at the mercy of her twin, and Laurie herself exiled in helpless limbo. Can Laurie figure out a way to save them all?
In the interest of full disclosure, I was a huge Lois Duncan fan in my youth, and Stranger With My Face was among my favorites. I approached this re-reading with some trepidation, because many times books or movies from our youth do not stand the test of time.
Stranger With My Face did.
On the very first page, Duncan has us on edge. Laurie, the first person narrator, tells us all about the beautiful home her family lives in, then says, “There was a time when I, too, loved Cliff House.” Uh oh. Something’s wrong at Cliff House. On page three, Laurie tells us of an eerie presence who whispers to her at night: “I blame you. Only you.” For what? What terrible thing has Laurie done? Then on the next page, Laurie says that two of the three people who know the whole story are “gone.” Gone as in departed, or as in…dead? As quick as that, I was sucked completely into the story.
In the twenty-something years since I last read the book, I had forgotten all but the most general concept of the book. I could now appreciate the skill with which Duncan weaves mystery, romance, Native American lore, and the paranormal into an engrossing story. The setting, on Brighton Island off the coast of New England, enhances the mixed moods of interdependence, independence, and isolation that pervade the book. The characters are all drawn simply, but not simplistically. They have good days and bad days, flaws and virtues. They make good decisions and mistakes. Even the antagonist, who almost everyone considers pure evil, is given enough depth that a reader can feel sorry for her—or at least see what might have been if her life had been different.
Behind the suspense and tension, Duncan deftly explores themes of identity, first loves, family, friendship, and seeing people for who they are—not what they look like. All of these themes, particularly the struggle to define one’s identity, are central to our teenage experience. This, and the fact that she deals with those themes without once being preachy or obvious, help explain Lois Duncan’s longevity and continued popularity as a YA author.
Stranger With My Face is a timeless novel of suspense, as engaging for adult readers as young adults. Impossible to put down, the characters and plot twists mark it as a classic of its genre. The re-release of Lois Duncan’s earlier novels is sure to draw in a whole new generation of fans—and deservedly so.
When Stranger With My Face was originally released in 1981, it garnered many awards and nominations, including the the ALA Best Book for Young Adults and the New York Times Outstanding Book of the Year. In a School Library Journal article about the re-released books, Erin Stein, senior executive editor at Little, Brown says of Duncan’s work overall: “I think Lois was definitely at the forefront of YA literature. I still am sometimes surprised to see what she was writing about back then—and it’s not nearly as tame as you might imagine. Her characters are very real and believable. She was definitely a beacon to so many people—she still gets amazing letters from readers who have been so touched by her books, either just as entertainment or as something that truly echoed their own lives. She gave teenagers a voice.”