Is there a real Witness Protection Program in the U.S.? Is it successful? What kind of witnesses do they protect? It seems a little far fetched to me, but still fascinating, so I was intrigued when I first read the teaser for Jake Burt’s upcoming release, “Greetings From Witness Protection!” Through NetGalley, MacMillan Children’s Publishing granted me a pre-release copy of the book, which I quite enjoyed.
Navigating the tween and teenage years is difficult even under the most ideal conditions. Adolescents who seem to have it all (friends, activities, good grades, supportive family) become targets for kids who feel slightly “less-than.” Others hide at school from difficult home lives, or at home from the pressures of school. Just getting through each day is a victory for many tweens and teens.
Some kids seem to have everything stacked against them, and main character Nicki Demere is a perfect example. When her grandmother died, Nicki was sent to live in (for lack of a better term) an orphanage (her father was imprisoned and not a present figure in her life); in and out of the homes of several prospective adoptive parents, Nicki felt like she just wasn’t going to “stick” anywhere. Her propensity to steal (and her ability to slip things into her own hands unnoticed) was often a deal-breaker for traditional families, but it is this talent that gets her noticed by a couple of U.S. Marshals who are looking for a very special kid.
Elena Sicurezza “ratted” on her mobster brother, it turns out, and now the U.S. Marshal’s Witness Security Program is protecting her, her husband and young son. One of the Marshals, Janice, explains “’It used to be we’d change people’s identities, give them new cities, new names, new jobs, new schools, even new appearances. But that’s not enough anymore. Bad people have caught on to how to look, where to look, and what to look for. We have to evolve, and Project Family is one of our strategies.’”
And so, the Sicurezza family of three changes overnight to the Trevor family of four. They all move away from everything they’ve ever known, although the Sicurezza’s have each other, and Nicki (now Charlotte) has no one. Again. Instead she has to be a convincing actress in the role of a lifetime: as a sister to a kid who isn’t ready to share his parents, as a daughter to people she has just met, and as a run-of-the-mill, middle of the road, unnoticeable, average 13-year old girl. And if she fails? Death, for any one (or all four) of them.
I enjoyed this book, but there were points when I thought it kind of dragged. It was hard to read about this girl, who is besieged with normal teen things like dealing with mean girls, grades, and would-be brothers, but who also has this very weighty issue of keeping her new family alive – it is just a very emotional juxtaposition. In fact, the author does a great job of pulling you into this very safe, light-hearted feeling, and then reminding you that danger could be lurking just around the corner. This might be my favorite passage, and a fantasy of many middle school kids: "I wonder how much pressure you could lift off new kids at a school if they could say, ‘Sorry, I’d try harder, but the U.S. government ordered me not to be that cool.’"
By the way, the Witness Security Program is real (https://www.usmarshals.gov/witsec/); so far, they have not had any “participant” harmed or killed while under their care.
I would definitely recommend this book – it does revolve around a girl mostly, but many boys will appreciate the “cool” factor of witness protection. Its recommended age range is 10-14, though I think some 9-year olds would be able to handle it – and certainly any interested adults (wink!).