56 pages 1 hour read

Sharon Creech

The Great Unexpected

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 2012

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Summary and Study Guide


Newbery Medal winner Sharon Creech’s 2012 novel, The Great Unexpected, follows the relationship between two best friends, Naomi Deane and Lizzie Scatterding, both orphans who know little about their families. They have felt heartache and loss, though these experiences impact them in contrasting ways: Lizzie is talkative and enthusiastic, while Naomi is guarded and anxious. In a discussion of her inspiration for the text, Creech recounts her realization that when faced with the unexpected, children today are “worried and fearful” rather than “intrigued, excited, [and] curious” as she and her children were (1). She also cites her desire to explore how individuals shape their reality about what is “real” or “unreal,” as well as how all people are connected. This story is a work of magical realism in that it depicts true-to-life experiences like hardship and jealousy without sugar-coating or idealizing childhood or familial relationships; it also includes references to things typically considered not part of reality, such as fairies and talking dead boys that fall from trees.

This guide refers to the 2012 paperback edition published by HarperCollins Children’s Books.

Plot Summary

Naomi Deane lives in a small American town called Blackbird Tree, raised by her guardians, Joe and Nula; both her parents are dead. One day, a body falls from a tree, knocking her down, and she thinks the boy—who’s near her age of 12—is dead until he speaks. He asks where he is and if he’s in “Rooks Orchard”; when Naomi tells him he isn’t, he returns to being dead. Naomi’s best friend, Lizzie Scatterding, approaches, and the boy tells them not to take the gold and that his name is Finn. At the same time, in Ireland, Sybil Kavanagh finishes her will, and her companion, Miss Pilpenny, comforts her when her laughter turns to wheezing.

Finn does not answer the girls’ questions and wanders off. Naomi is anxious and fears the unexpected because she associates it with bad things. By contrast, Lizzie is talkative and eccentric. She likes to “stand on the moon” (17) in her head, as it relaxes her; it has the opposite effect on Naomi. Like Naomi, Lizzie’s parents are deceased, and she lives with the Cupwrights. In Ireland, Sybil asks her solicitor, Mr. Dingle, to go to America and investigate for her; she says she is ready to die now that her revenge is prepared.

Lizzie and Naomi climb a tree when they hear a dog. When Finn appears, Lizzie explains that Naomi fears dogs because a dog killed her father and mangled her arm. Naomi decides that she likes Finn. He tells them about the Crooked Bridge near where he’s from, built in a zigzag to trick evil spirits, but Naomi doesn’t believe in spirits. Naomi realizes that Finn talks like Nula, who is from Ireland. Another stranger arrives in town, asking questions, and the girls hear that the stranger’s name is Dangle or Doodle. The girls agree to help each other with their summer “jobs”: Naomi must clean out the barn, and Lizzie has a church volunteer project. The barn contains three trunks, and Naomi fears something awful is in them. In Ireland, an old enemy visits Sybil, Paddy McCoul. He asks for his son’s trunk, and she threatens to shoot him.

Finn finds Naomi and asks her where he can find Elizabeth Scatterding, and she explains that it’s Lizzie’s full name, growing horribly jealous. Later, Mr. Dingle arrives, and, much to his surprise, Naomi asks him about Finn.

Naomi doesn’t remember the dog attack but does recall her fear. Now, she worries that Nula and Joe will hand her over to anyone who might come to claim her. When she learns that Nula was sent away from home as a child, she worries this could happen to her. Naomi says that when she was younger, she had difficulty discerning what was real from what was only a story; because stories and memories all seemed to live in her head, she told Nula that everything was a story.

Nula senses Naomi’s jealousy of Lizzie, and she tells Naomi about Finn McCoul, a boy from her youth. He turned out to be wicked, and his name wasn’t even Finn; it was Paddy. Lizzie and Naomi begin their service, helping elderly “unfortunates” in town, and they visit old man Canner and Farley, the latter of whom has only one arm. Naomi sees a pair of small iron birds—rooks—in Mr. Farley’s apartment.

In Ireland, Miss Pilpenny and Sybil discuss Sybil’s late husband, Albert, and how different he was from his horrible father. Sybil anticipates hearing from Mr. Dingle about his investigation.

Finn finds Naomi in the barn, but Lizzie arrives, interrupting them, and Naomi wishes she’d disappear. Later, Naomi tells Finn about her parents and how her arm got hurt, deciding a damaged arm isn’t too bad considering what could have happened to her. Naomi and Lizzie try to visit the next two “unfortunates,” Witch Wiggins and “Crazy” Cora, but they are turned away. On her way home, Naomi finds Joe in a heap, having died of a heart attack.

At Joe’s funeral, Naomi’s jealousy causes her to push Lizzie away. Bo Dimmens tells Naomi that Joe shot his dog after it attacked her and that the only reason it did was because she hit the dog with a stick. He says that Joe convinced everyone in town to give up their dogs after that. Naomi never knew this. “Crazy” Cora and Witch Wiggins tell Naomi that Joe stole their dogs. In Ireland, Mr. Dingle visits Sybil and tells her that everything is prepared for her revenge, and though Joe’s death is sad, it makes things easier for them.

Nula tells Naomi they’ll have to sell the farm, and the Cupwrights tell Lizzie they cannot adopt her. Nula decides it’s time to go through the trunks. First, they open Naomi’s father’s trunk, finding photos of Naomi in the hospital. One picture includes her nurse, a woman Lizzie recognizes as her mother. Next, they go through Naomi’s mother’s trunk. Lizzie cries that she has no relatives except for an aunt she doesn’t know overseas. In Ireland, Sybil tells Miss Pilpenny about how she came to Rooks Orchard, which belonged to her late husband’s father. Paddy McCoul, who called himself Finn then, got her a job there and then ran off with her first month’s pay. Soon, she fell in love with Albert, the master’s son, and they eloped.

In Nula’s trunk, Naomi and Lizzie find a pair of iron rooks. Nula doesn’t know who sent them to her. Nula tells them her sister’s name was Sybil and that they had a falling out. Naomi recognizes Finn in another picture, and Nula confirms that the boy’s name was Finn. Naomi cannot understand how this person who looks like her Finn can be in a decades-old photograph. Finn reveals to Naomi that he’s from Ireland, and she returns to Mr. Farley to ask about his rooks. Someone named Margaret sent them to someone called Mary, and he must have gotten them from her. Naomi senses that there is something big and unexpected about to unfold. She goes to Witch Wiggins’s house, and the old woman tells Naomi she’ll soon find out who sent Nula’s birds. In Ireland, Sybil dies.

When Nula learns of Sybil’s death, she tells Naomi they must go to the funeral. Lizzie arrives, exclaiming that she, too, is going to Ireland. When they arrive at Rooks Orchard, Lizzie meets Miss Pilpenny, who is her aunt, and they quickly grow close. Miss Pilpenny allows the girls to run free, warning them to avoid the fairy ring. They cross a crooked bridge, like the one Finn described, and find the ring. Despite the warnings, Naomi dips a foot in, which scares Lizzie. Mr. Dingle arrives, telling Nula and Naomi that their home was destroyed by lightning. In America, Witch Wiggins retrieves Nula’s iron birds from the ashes and gives them to Mr. Farley.

Nula buries Sybil’s ashes in the orchard, noting the extra stone near Sybil’s. Miss Pilpenny says it’s part of Sybil’s revenge. She shows everyone a rock with Finn’s initials carved into it. Sybil made it after Paddy McCoul broke her heart, and it was moved here to the site where Paddy’s son, Finn, fell from a tree and died. Later, Mr. Dingle reads Sybil’s will. She’s left money to her cook, Dora, who is “Crazy” Cora’s sister; she’s left money to her gardener, Michael Canner, who is old man Canner’s brother; she’s left money to Miss Pilpenny and Nula, asking Nula to be buried in the orchard beside her, and she’s left money and Rooks Orchard to Naomi and Lizzie, provided they allow Nula and Miss Pilpenny to live there and that they care for Sybil’s beloved dogs. Mr. Dingle explains Sybil’s revenge: Paddy McCoul stole money and drove a wedge between Sybil and Nula, but now they’ll be together forever. Sybil’s father-in-law thought little of women, and now women own his estate. Naomi, however, fears the dogs.

Naomi realizes that change, even when it’s good, can knock a person off balance. Nula is happy, and she tells Naomi to accept their good fortune. Miss Pilpenny asks the girls to help with Finn’s trunk. Sybil sent Nula the iron rooks, and Miss Pilpenny sent a pair to her sister, Margaret, in Ravensworth. Long ago, Finn dug up a bag of gold from the fairy ring; the next day, he fell from a tree and died. The girls find the gold in his trunk, and Mr. Dingle takes a piece to an appraiser, who won’t touch it because it has a fairy mark on it. Naomi reburies it in the ring. The girls send money to the Cupwrights and their church to help the “unfortunates,” Dora plans to visit her sister, Mr. Canner receives a check from his brother to pay for his passage to Ireland, and Bo Dimmens learns that Nula has given him the property.

Mr. Farley sends Naomi a poem she wrote for him years ago, and he writes back that he likes her poem. Witch Wiggins writes to say that Naomi’s mother was an aide at the hospital when Mr. Farley met her, and she’d been kind to him. It becomes clear that Lizzie’s mom, Margaret, and Naomi’s mom, Mary, were coworkers and friends, and Naomi marvels at the many hidden connections among them all. Now, she thinks of all that had to happen for her to end up here, with the good fortune she has. She goes to the moon again and finally sees everything in perspective, small and large. That day, she falls in love with the dogs, realizing that she must accept the good and the bad and that there is a lot of good.