Mary Beth Miller,
On the Head of a Pin
(Dutton, 2006)

Mary Beth Miller made a splash with her wildly successful, award-nominated debut novel Aimee, about the assisted suicide of a very troubled teen girl. In On the Head of a Pin, Miller again creates an intense psychological drama, complete with similarly self-absorbed, clueless and mistrusting adults.

On the Head of a Pin differs from her first novel, both in the gender of the main characters and the nature of the central action. Here, we have a trio of reluctant friends who accidentally perpetuate a crime and are forced together in the cover-up, each with their own motivations, fears and obligations. None can fully trust their others, nor himself. A fourth male is forced on the lam by his family situation, and suspicion starts to spread in his direction.

The book is about figuring out who to trust (and surprisingly, there are some adults who come through for troubled teens in here) and how far one can go without being true to oneself. One character struggles with guilt over his sister's paralyzing accident, one tries to protect a younger sibling from a stepparent's rampages and others are trying to figure out their place in the hierarchy of high school.

I was surprised to see that formal reviews tagged this novel with a "strong antigun message." A gun is involved in the accidental crime. It is an element of the plot, and there are certainly lessons to be learned about mixing alcohol and reckless gun play. But there is no formal message, and absolutely no preaching about gun control. The strength of both of Miller's novels is her ability to raise issues such as suicide, child abuse, gun usage, organized religion and family skeletons without giving the reader a suggested answer. She writes candidly about issues that are important for teens to consider and fit into their own personal belief structure.

by Jessica Lux-Baumann
7 October 2006

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