#20 by Nancy Springer
Publisher: Untreed Reads
Genre: Mystery/Suspense, Contemporary
Length: Short Story (12 pages)
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe
Little Veronica likes hanging out at Mrs. Life's porch. She can see the whole town from the steps, and Mrs. Life is fascinating in the way that she keeps track of all sorts of numbers and information in her little spiral-bound notebooks. So it's surprising to Veronica when the always-nice Mrs. Life has an argument with Mr. Quickel, the school health teacher and wrestling coach, about the cost of mowing her lawn. Soon, Mrs. Life has started to insinuate things about Mr. Quickel, his marriage and what he might or might not have done with a boy who ran off from the town to live life as an openly gay man. Soon, the entire town is turning on Mr. Quickel with rumors and threats and destroying his sanity. Before too long, Veronica starts to see what Mrs. Life's real motivation is, and what dark secrets she keeps in one of her spiral-bound notebooks.
It’s easy to think of it as innocent speculation but gossip has the power to ruin lives. Nowhere is this more true than in the small, isolated community of Pleasantville where even the slightest whiff of nonconformity has serious consequences.
What makes someone so interested in the affairs of others? #20 never directly answers this question. Part of the fun of reading it is stepping into the minds of each character and figuring out why they behave the way they do. Some seem to be motivated by fear of their own quirks being discovered, others do it as part of an urge to categorize and document everything that happens in their lives.
One of my favourite parts of this story was how it handled the issue of labeling others. Gay, HIV-positive, pedophile, eccentric, depressed, suicidal, on the brink of a divorce - all of these labels and more are pasted onto people who in many cases are never proved to actually warrent some or all of those things. What was really interesting, though, was seeing how the targets reacted once it became widely assumed that certain labels defined them as human beings. Words and the harsh judgements and social ostracism that accompanies them can cut more deeply than the sharpest knife.
The ending, while it fit in well with the tone and general message of the story, felt abrupt. I would have liked to see it foreshadowed and drawn out a little more for a bigger impact on the audience.
#20 is an eye-opening look at the damage caused by idle talk. Whether you’ve been on the giving or receiving end of gossip you’ll find at least one character in this story with whom you can relate.