The Quade sisters drive from Sudbury to Port Desire to claim an inheritance from their paternal grandfather's estate. Demure Helen, twenty-two, is the eldest, dresses in black and is trying to hold the family together. Jeannie, in the middle, is seventeen; she has big hair and a bigger attitude. Fourteen-year-old Aggie has a shaven head, a penchant for vintage clothing and worries that her sisters will desert her. She sees everything around her as if it were a film.
Their father, Cameron Quade, fell madly in love with a girl "who is nothing but trouble" their grandfather had written, before cutting Cameron off. Eventually, their mother, Candy, left them too. The sisters believe that their grandfather has left them a fortune but soon discover that there's little to inheritųjust a neglected, albeit spacious, house which Helen calls the mausoleum and a small monthly stipend. There is also a proviso in the willųin order to inherit the estate, the girls must share the house with their Great-Aunt Lily.
Port Desire is a small town with a long memory and the girls find that the cards are definitely stacked against them since the town fold view them all as potential criminals just like their father was before them. There is dissension among the girls too. Helen and Jeannie are constantly arguing and Aggie is always in a panic, afraid that one of her sisters will just take off and leave the others behind.
But having no place else to go and no means to go anyway, the sisters take refuge in the house. Great-Aunt Lily believes that they're imposters and refuses to move in with them and the girls don't know how they can convince her that they really are Cameron Quade's daughters. Helen takes a part-time job at the local diner; Jeannie gets a job in a hair salon and Aggie registers at the local high school. There are ups-and-downs, but slowly the sisters begin to make a life for themselves. There's a budding romance for Helen with a young lawyer and one for Jeannie too. Aggie befriends her shy look-alike cousin Cameron and becomes the driving force behind her English class' term project, a movie.
And just as things begin to look up, their mother shows up. Somehow she's heard that her daughters have inherited "a fortune" and wants a piece. Helen and Jeannie are distant and distrustful, but Aggie is thrilled that they'll be a family again. However, when the proceeds from the screening of the movie go missing, Aggie is chief suspect and their mother disappears.
In Spite of Killeer Bees is a packed but absorbing melodrama. Writing in the third person, but most definitely from Aggie's point of view, and in the present tense, Johnston creates a film-like quality so that readers, like Aggie, are both "in" and "watching" the story develop. There is a great sense of immediacy, a feeling as if everything is unfolding right before the readers' eyes.
The Quade sisters are wonderfully defined and individual, a little too predictable perhaps, but sympathetic in their varying roles. They're dysfunctional, modern-day "Little Women", as Aggie herself notes. Like Alcott's March sisters, with little else at their disposal, the Quade sisters use their wits and creativity to make a home and survive.
Other characters in the novel are not nearly as well fleshed out. Great-Aunt Lily is confused and confusing, on the one hand sympathetic toward their father, but suspicious of the girls. She moves in and out of the story; she is helpful but not necessarily welcoming. Cousin Cameron is an interesting character. Quiet and awkward and unsure of himself, he becomes Aggie's great ally. And when Candy joins the ensemble, one can almost hear the hissing of the audience as the villain of the piece appears on screen. She isn't exactly evil, but her ulterior motives are fairly transparent.
But as in a good melodrama, all's well that ends well, and this novel wraps up cinematically with a good dose of familial love and optimism.
Theo Heras is a children's librarian at the Toronto Public Library and partner in MaryContrary Associates.