Title: Dirty Little Secrets
Author: C. J. Omololu
ISBN: 9780802786609
Pages: 212 pages
Publisher/Date: Walker Publishing Company, Inc. a division of Bloomsbury Publishing, Inc., c2010.

Everyone has secrets. Some are just bigger and dirtier than others.
At least that’s what I told myself whenever I stood in a crowd of normal-looking people and felt like I was the only one. The only person on the planet who had to hide practically everything that was real. It was soothing to look at all the unfamiliar faces and try to figure out the thing each person hid inside–true or not, it made me feel like less of a freak. (1)

Sixteen-year-old Lucy has lived with her mom’s compulsive hoarding tendencies for years. It got bad after her mother’s divorce. It got even worse after Lucy’s older brother and sister moved out of the house to get away from the piles of magazines, newspapers, and trash. Lucy just keeps telling herself that she only has to hold on for two more years, and then she can move out and away from the suffocating living situation. She’s fed-up with keeping people at a distance so they don’t discover this embarrassing secret, especially new friend Kaylie and longtime crush Josh. But when she discovers her mother buried alive underneath the garbage, has her mother solved all Lucy’s problems or just caused the biggest problem ever?

Hoarders seems to be garnering more attention recently, especially with a television series and numerous talk show appearance. This is the first book where I’ve encountered a hoarder, and while I’m sure it would have niche market I’m not convinced it has mass appeal. That being said, it would make an interesting choice for book discussions and character studies. And it certainly appears that C. J. Omololu went about it correctly, as it says in jacket information that this debut author conducted research with the Children of Hoarders organization, which I wasn’t even aware existed. (And by the way, she has a beautiful website and a blog where two teenage girls recommend books. When I saw they liked Hate List by Jennifer Brown almost as much as me, I knew I had to mark her blog for further visits.)

Lucy is distraught to find her mother dead in the house they’ve shared for years with piles of what amounts to garbage. But that quickly turns to fear over what the neighbors and the media will think if she does call 911 to report her mother’s death. Racked with guilt, stress, and anxiety, Lucy moves through several emotions before coming to the ultimate if unexpected conclusion. I don’t know how many readers will see it coming, and I know I was both surprised, appalled, and impressed by her final decision. Not many teens her age would have the wherewithal or the guts to do what she does. Her sudden mood swings and calculating actions might surprise some readers, but I think the author is trying to portray the various conflicting feelings that run through Lucy’s head. When found in this predicament, she knows what she’s supposed to do, but she also knows the lasting effects her actions will cause.

Lucy isn’t the only conflicted character. Her siblings are equally interesting, with her older sister Sara exhibiting some signs that she might have inherited her mother’s inability to throw anything out. Brother Phil is more empathetic to Lucy’s situation, but he is so happy to be out that he’s not willing to return, and is desperately trying to permanently remove himself from any association with the family or the “disease.” The responses of the three children could definitely lead to discussion regarding the different responses that people can have, even when in the same situation. Personally, I’m curious what would have become of Lucy’s mother if she had lived to see her daughter move out as planned, since the house and hording was causing health problems that were routinely ignored. Other characters include Lucy’s friend Kaylie who is just the sweetest and most caring side-kick that anyone could ever desire. Lucy’s budding romance is innocent in the beginning but quickly turns as layered as the trash pile she’s trying desperately to diminish. And whether or not things will work out for them is anybody’s guess, but it seems like at this moment they’re “right” for each other because they both have had to grow up way too quickly.

I can’t leave without saying something about the descriptions, which are riveting in both their grotesqueness and their straight-forwardness. In a scene describing one of Lucy’s attempts at cleaning, which her mother vehemently opposed, we really get a sense of how daunting this task is for her. (Please excuse the length, but this scene really stuck with me)

A McDonald’s bag was lying near it, and when I picked it up, the top half tore off of the soggy bottom. The bag must have had food in it when it was set down here however long ago, because whatever it was had liquefied and seeped into the layers of newspaper down below, providing a home and nourishment to a colony of rice-sized maggots. I scrunched up my nose and tossed the remains of the bag into the big green can. […]
I felt something cold and wet inside my shirt. I quickly shook it out and watched as one lone maggot landed on the ground, still moving. I ground the disgusting thing into the remains of the carpet with my shoe until it was just a pasty, wet smear. […]
I had come into this part of the job completely unprepared. Tearing off my shirt, I dug around in my drawer for an old turtleneck. There was a bandanna in my sock drawer from when we had Wild West Days at school, so I took it out and tied it around my head to protect my hair from whatever else I was going to find as I cleaned.
Armed with the neck of the shirt pulled up over my mouth. I walked back to the living room. Taking a deep breath, I grabbed the shovel again and tried to pry the stack of newspapers off the carpet. (96-97)

Here, Lucy impresses me with her determination to save herself and her family from ridicule. Some might see it as selfish, since the publicity will affect her life the most. Personally, I just think she’s fed up. Frustrated with her mother who caused the problem and her father and siblings who ran away from it, she feels just as angry at herself for putting up with it for so long.

Readers will be cheering for Lucy even as they feel the weight of the world and her own conscience that she is struggling so hard to dig out from underneath and overcome.