The Face on the Milk Carton

by Caroline B. Cooney, Caroline Bruce

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On the surface, The Face on the Milk Carton is a good mystery story. Clues accumulate to keep the action moving as Janie Johnson tries to discover her true identity: the lack of baby pictures, the panic over a request to see her birth certificate, and information from the back issue of The New York Times. In addition, Janie’s memories appear in the form of quick glimpses of the past, the incomplete recollections of a three-year-old child. Is she really the girl in the polka-dot dress on the milk carton? Everything builds to a climax as Janie tries to decide whether to contact the Springs and how to confront the Johnsons.

If there were nothing more in this novel, the dramatic plot would be enough to make it a suspenseful page-turner. Below the fast-paced mystery, however, is a book that explores teenage emotions and relationships as it focuses on the need for people to belong and to have a sense of identity and importance.

As Janie falls into a romantic relationship with Reeve, she constantly struggles with problems surrounding the deeper emotional love that comes from being a member of a family. Her normal teenage concern about making her name sound unique turns into a greater concern as she seeks to determine both who she really is and what kind of person she is. If she really loved the Springs, why did she go with Hannah? If she really loves the Johnsons, why is she obsessed with the Springs? If she contacts the Springs, does that mean she does not love the Johnsons? Such questions race through Janie’s mind.

Reeve plays an important part in the novel, primarily as a foil for Janie. Fun-loving when she is serious, he remains stable as she becomes more upset. Yet, Reeve is not without his own problems of identity. The youngest in a family of overachievers, he is judged against the successes of his two older sisters and his older brother. He believes that his family thinks of him as the “dumb one.” While Janie knows that Reeve is not stupid, her own problem is so great that she is not able to help him. Instead, it is Reeve who must become the strong individual.

As in many of her novels, Cooney does an excellent job of presenting her characters through dialogue. She shows the normal growing pains and frustrations of a teenager in the late twentieth century—the excitement of a football game, the thrill of getting a driver’s license, and the rush of falling in love. These routine activities fade into the background, however, as Janie must confront the real dilemma of her kidnapping.

Cooney lets the reader share in the out-of-control feeling that slowly overtakes Janie. Tension builds as Janie unearths more clues, and she refuses to admit that the people whom she calls “Mommy” and “Daddy” may be criminals. Even when Janie realizes that Hannah, not the Johnsons, performed the kidnapping, her problems are far from over. Finally, she prepares the letter for the Springs. In this action, Janie seems almost detached from herself, looking on as if she were merely a puppet in a play. The conclusion provides a welcome relief for the reader and the characters.

The combination of the mystery of the kidnapping and the tension that builds within the main character creates the overall suspense in the novel. Unlike many of Cooney’s other works, this novel does not arrive at a “happily ever after” ending. The reader is left to wonder what will happen after the phone call, when the Johnson and Spring families must deal with the realities of the situation.

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