Form and Content
InThe Face on the Milk Carton, Caroline B. Cooney tells Janie Johnson’s story from the limited omniscient point of view. This straightforward approach allows Cooney to focus on Janie, to give the reader access to Janie’s thoughts, and to provide glimpses of the flashbacks that occur in Janie’s mind as she remembers her life before the age of three.
The protagonist is a high school sophomore who, thinking her life is dull, seeks to add “personality” by changing the spelling of her name from “Jane” to “Janie.” Eating lunch in the school cafeteria with her friends, she looks at a milk carton and sees a photograph of herself when she was three years old. The name beneath the picture, however, is Jennie Spring, and the information states that she was reported missing by a family in New Jersey.
Although she loves the Johnsons, Janie begins to gather clues about her early life. Her mother acts strangely when Janie needs her birth certificate to get a driver’s license and passport. There is also the absence of any baby pictures of Janie. Finally, in an attic trunk, she finds the polka-dot dress shown in the missing person photograph.
When Janie confronts the Johnsons, they tell her that rather than being their daughter, she is their granddaughter. Their daughter Hannah, who was brainwashed by a cult, came home one day with her own daughter, young Janie. When Hannah left to rejoin the cult, she left Janie behind. Fearing that the cult would come to take Janie away, the Johnsons changed their name and, with the help of an attorney, moved, leaving no forwarding address.
While wanting to believe the Johnsons, Janie cannot forget the information from the milk carton. Skipping school, she persuades her boyfriend Reeve to drive her to the New Jersey town where the Spring family lives. There she watches as the Spring children arrive home and are greeted by their mother. Janie and the Springs have the same red hair. Putting together the information from her flashbacks, Janie realizes that she was once part of this family.
As she learns more about the past, she realizes that the Johnsons did not kidnap her from the Springs; Hannah did. Torn between her love for the Johnsons and the pain that she knows the Spring family has suffered, Janie writes detailed notes about what she has found and sinks into despair. She even blames herself for the kidnapping. Her refusal to tell the Johnsons drives a wedge between her and Reeve, and they break up.
Events come to a head when Janie puts her notes in an envelope that she has addressed to the Springs. When she finds the clip in her notebook broken and the envelope missing, Janie realizes that someone may find the letter and mail it. She turns to Reeve, who contacts his sister Lizzie. Although it is Lizzie who, along with Reeve and Janie, tells the Johnsons the entire story, it is Janie who places the phone call to the Springs that ends the novel.
The primary function of setting in this novel is to accentuate the comfortable and secure upper middle-class lifestyle that Janie Johnson leads. Her suburban Connecticut neighborhood contains a sense of tradition that can make room for growth.
Their's [the Johnson's] was an architecturally mixed neighborhood. Originally a street of substantial older houses with front porches, big attics, and trees that dumped a million leaves every autumn, each side lot had been built upon. Modern ranches and cute little Cape Cods lay between each brown-shingled old place. Her own house was an old one dramatically modernized with sheets of glass where once there had been dark, hidden rooms.
A typical New England autumn becomes the seasonal backdrop replete with mountains of leaves piled in the street gutters waiting to be collected. A Saturday tailgate picnic before a football game and a drive into the country to witness the fall colors contrast with the tumbled colors in Janie's turbulent mind indicated in italic print.
Inside, her mind spun. It was like having a color...
(The entire section is 2,168 words.)