Her husband Randall calls her Sweet J; the kids at the Shelter call her Ms. Janice. Zhu is the name she was given at the Chinese orphanage where she lived after being given up by her China-Mama, before she was adopted by her American parents. Number 1242 is the number she will be wearing as she runs her next marathon.
All these things have shaped her: her abandonment by her mother who was trying for a boy; her loving adoptive parents; her training for runs; her happy marriage; and her work as the Director at a center for troubled children.
I don't know much about most of these things, but Mark Matthews' book made me feel like an expert.
Ms. Janice is counseling a troubled teen, Hailey, who is at the shelter because she isn't safe with her mother and she isn't safe with her father. Hailey is pregnant, and Janice shares that she is adopted.
"'So I guess your mother didn't want you?' Hailey asked, clearly amazed at my story.
'Well, my biological mother, or my China-Mama, as I called her didn't really have a choice because of how it is there. She was actually making a big risk just to get me to the orphanage . . . So really she loved me more than most. Some infant girls are actually killed at birth. Had China-Mama not loved me, I wouldn't be here. She knows I'm okay though,' I said, and turned to smile into Hailey's eyes. 'She feels it.'
In reality, Janice has abandonment issues and wages a constant struggle to overcome them. Her parents are excellent. Her Mom is a marathoner, and Janice started training with her at an early age. Her mother is adept at making sure Janice knows she is loved all the years of her childhood, not only by herself and her father, but also by the birth mother who had given her up.
"'In a perfect world, China-Mama could have raised you. I don't kid myself about this,' is what my mom always told me, 'but we are perfect for each other so [we] can be grateful for that.'"
Janice is currently focused on two girls in particular, Hailey and Sharleen, both of whom have disappeared. Janice suspects they are sleeping in the basement at the shelter, and is in a quandary as to how to deal with it. There are legalities and ethics involved, but sometimes doing the thing that is right falls outside the boundaries. Also Janice's own unresolved childhood issues are in play; she wants to ensure she remains the protector and not a perpetrator. Yet these same issues have honed her and made her stronger. These are the things that enable her to pass on the hope and the skills to enable the children at the shelter to become strong too.
Her daily runs are where Janice grinds through many of her problems. Her thoughts as she runs are fascinating. She thinks about work problems and possible resolutions; she replays memories, with her parents, with her husband; she calculates minutes and seconds as she trains; she relates the mental and physical highs and lows associated with the effort. Almost, she made me want to think about taking up running myself. Not because she made it sound easy, but because she made it sound so rewarding.
And Mark Matthews! He must have some admirable women in his life. Because when he writes his female characters and makes them talk about or think about or feel women's topics such as motherhood and nurturing, he made me believe that women had felt them, and spoken them, and thought them.
There were a very few issues with the book that I hope will be addressed in subsequent editions: for instance, once he spelled wondered when he meant wandered, more than once he used besides when it should have been beside, and quite often he used adjectives when he should have turned them into adverbs (quickly rather than quick, slowly rather than slow). But those little tiny things don't really matter given the greatness of the book.
An angry parent came to the shelter to confront Janice, and I felt the danger. The children revolve in and out the doors of the shelter, and I felt the hopelessness and despair. But there is also kindness and compassion, and sometimes there is a success story. And there is the marathon -- the preparation and the training and the actual day, and I never thought the minutia of all that could be so entertaining, but it was.
There's conflict resolution, character development and growth, compunction to care about what happens to the characters, and a very satisfying ending. I can't think of anything else that needs to be added.