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Literature / The Pinballs

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"Harvey and me and Thomas J are just like pinballs. Somebody put in a dime and pushed a button and we came out."

The Pinballs is a children's' novel by Betsy Byars, telling the story of three foster children who find themselves sharing a home. Carlie, an abuse survivor, Harvey, a cripple who was run over by his drink-driving father and Thomas J, who was abandoned as a baby.

This novel provides examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Carlie's stepfather. He hit her so hard he gave her a concussion.
    • Harvey's father is of the extreme negligence variety of this trope.
  • The Alcoholic: Harvey's father
  • The Cynic: Carlie, at first
  • Dark and Troubled Past: All three of the protagonists, naturally, given that they're in foster care.
    • Carlie's father left before she was born, and her mother has since had a series of relationships with men who were varying degrees of abusive to Carlie, ultimately ending up with a man who beat Carlie so badly he nearly killed her.
    • Harvey's mother walked out on him and his father when he was little, and his father started drinking heavily in order to cope with the loss.
    • Thomas J was abandoned on a stranger's front lawn as a toddler. While he had a relatively happy upbringing (especially in comparison to his foster siblings), he was always struggling with the trauma of being unwanted as well as feeling like he didn't even really know his own identity.
  • Disappeared Dad: Carlie's father abandoned her mother before she was born.
  • Doesn't Know Their Own Birthday: Thomas J, since nothing about his birth or identity is known. Carlie offers to let him share hers for the time being.
  • Doorstop Baby: Thomas J, as a baby, was left in front of a farmhouse belonging a pair of older twin sisters named Thomas and Jefferson (their father named them after his favorite president). The sisters took him in and didn't report him to the authorities and it isn't until they both break their hips and end up in the hospital that Thomas J is discovered.
  • Frying Pan of Doom: Turns up in Carlie's backstory, implied to have saved her life.
  • Gender-Blender Name: The Benson twins (who are female), Thomas and Jefferson. Their father named them after his favorite president.
  • Gosh Dang It to Heck!: Carlie is described as foul-mouthed, but as a book aimed at 8-12-year-olds, the worst she gets to say is "Bug off".
  • Had the Silly Thing in Reverse: A very non-humorous version is how Harvey's legs were broken. Harvey was walking in front of his father's car when his father tried to put it in reverse, but because he'd been drinking, he accidentally put it in drive instead and ran Harvey over.
  • I'll Pretend I Didn't Hear That: After Harvey blatantly shows a nurse the puppy that Carlie and Thomas J had sneaked into the hospital, she gently warns him that if she had seen a dog in the hospital, she'd have had to kick it out immediately.
  • Missing Mom: Harvey's mom left him and his father some years earlier to live on a commune, and hasn't had a scrap of contact with them since. Harvey initially assumed his father was at least partly responsible for the lack of contact, but his father then told him that he had tried writing letters to her to keep her up to date on Harvey and encourage her to at least write to him once in a while, but she never replied to any of them.
  • Pinball Protagonist: Discussed. Carlie insists that they are this, thrown around by forces they are powerless against in a world that doesn't care about them (which, of course, provides the title for the book). On the last page of the book, she finally admits she's wrong.
  • Useless Bystander Parent: It's never explicitly mentioned, but if one reads between the lines, it doesn't appear that Carlie's mother was particularly interested in protecting her daughter (Carlie) from her husband (Carlie's stepfather). At the very least, it is stated outright that Carlie's mother is still together with her stepfather even after the latter nearly beat Carlie to death.
  • The '70s: Published in 1977, the book stands as a Unintentional Period Piece with many references to the pop culture at the time.