The Face on the Milk Carton

by Caroline B. Cooney, Caroline Bruce

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Chapter 9 Summary

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Janie’s parents go silent, shocked by her questions. Janie stands in agony, desperate to know the truth. Her parents look at each other, and some silent communication passes between them. They both nod, agreeing to tell Janie their story.

Haltingly, the Johnsons admit that they are not her parents. They are her grandparents. They had a daughter, Hannah, who is Janie’s real mother. Hearing this, Janie feels frantic with relief. “Is that all?” she says. She can live with being the illegitimate child of a mother she has never met. That is far better than being the victim of a kidnapping, the lost child of faraway strangers.

Mr. Johnson tells Janie that he loves her and that he is her real father in an emotional sense, even if their legal and biological relationship is a little out of the ordinary. He admits, however, that he does not have her birth certificate. He does not know what to do about her driver’s license and passport. To Janie, this seems unimportant under the circumstances.

The family sits down for a snack, laughingly commenting that the Johnsons always use food to fix any emotional upheaval. Janie muses that she is not “completely a Johnson.” Her dad admits that none of them is a real Johnson. Originally, their family name was Javensen. He says it is a long story, and they need to begin it from the beginning.

Taking turns to speak, Janie's parents tell her about her past. The two of them married young and had a child, Hannah, a year later. Hannah was a wonderful person, but she never had the same interests as other children. Even as a little girl, she was always bothered by inequality. She could not live with the fact that she had everything when people elsewhere suffered and starved. When she grew up, she sought relief in the Hare Krishna cult. The cult destroyed her life.

Here, Janie’s parents pause to explain why they have never told Janie this story before now: They were afraid that she would try to find her mother and end up ensnared by the cult, too. Losing Hannah was the most horrible experience the Johnsons have ever had, and they could not stand to lose Janie. Seeing her parents’ emotions, Janie promises never to let this happen.

Continuing the story, Janie’s parents explain that they did everything to get Hannah away from the Hare Krishnas. Nothing worked. The few times they were allowed to visit her, she was like a zombie. They wrote to her frequently, but she never wrote back. Just once, they received a letter from the cult saying that Hannah had been married—but they were not even told the name of the man who became Hannah’s “mate.”

One day, Hannah showed up on her parents’ doorstep holding Janie by the hand. She had decided that the cult was a bad place for her child, so she had run away, bringing Janie along. Terrified that the cult would come after their daughter and granddaughter, the Javensens changed their name to Johnson and moved away, changing homes several times to avoid being traced.

Janie adjusted quickly to her new life—but Hannah was “addicted to the cult the way some people are addicted to heroin.” She decided to go back, and her parents could not stop her. Fearing the cult would claim Janie as well, they cut off all contact with Hannah and moved to a new home once again. Even if Hannah were forced to reveal where she had left Janie, the cult could never find her.

When the story ends, Janie and her parents, all three filled with emotion, hug. Janie feels resentful toward Hannah, who hurt her parents so badly. However, Janie is also relieved. Mr. and Mrs. Johnson are not her biological parents, but they are her real family. She does not have to worry about the milk carton anymore.

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