57 pages 1 hour read

Sharon Creech

Absolutely Normal Chaos

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 1990

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Summary and Study Guide


Absolutely Normal Chaos is a children’s novel published in 1990 by the American author Sharon Creech. It tells the story of 13-year-old Mary Lou Finney, who documents an eventful summer of romance and loss in a summer journal.

Sharon Creech (1945) is an American writer of children’s books. The author’s first children’s book, the novel proved a key starting point for Creech’s writerly imagination, as several of its characters, including Mary Lou Finney, Alex Cheevey and Mr. Birkway, appear in her Newbery award-winning 1995 title Walk Two Moons.

This study guide is based on the Macmillan Children's Books Kindle Edition, published on September 17, 2020.

Plot Summary

Thirteen-year-old Mary Lou Finney is assigned to write in a summer journal. At the start of the journal, she feels that there will be nothing much to write about, as she has been left behind by popular classmates who are growing up faster than her. Mary Lou also faces a summer of looking after her younger brothers while her older sister Maggie shirks her duties. However, everything changes when her 17-year-old cousin, the uncommunicative and taciturn Carl Ray, comes from West Virginia to stay with the Finneys in Easton, Ohio. Mary Lou does not understand Carl Ray’s reasons for coming, and she resents her mother’s request that she put off her plans to clean up after him.

Meanwhile, Mary Lou keeps running into her crush Alex Cheevey in the neighborhood. Her best friend Beth Ann Bartels dates and becomes engrossed in a new boyfriend, Derek. Carl Ray gets a job at their neighbor Mr. Furtz’s hardware store. As she begins to read Homer’s Odyssey, Mary Lou likens its tribulations and the interference of the classical gods to what is going on in her own life.

When Mr. Furtz dies suddenly of a heart attack, Mary Lou is surprised to see that Carl Ray is devastated. To her, it seems Carl Ray only knew Mr. Furtz for a day. However, soon enough, more surprising things happen to Carl Ray—he receives an inheritance of money from a mysterious benefactor, and while cleaning his room Mary Lou discovers a black-stoned ring. Carl Ray inexplicably gives this ring to Mr. Furtz’s widow, Mrs. Furtz, who is often at Mary Lou’s parents’ house crying. Carl Ray also begins dating Beth Ann. Mary Lou only pays partial attention to these events because she is distracted by her burgeoning romance with Alex. When her parents demand that she accompany Carl Ray on a trip home to West Virginia, she realizes how happy she is in her personal life at home.

At Aunt Radene and Uncle Carl Joe’s farm—which has neither indoor plumbing nor a phone-line—Mary Lou suffers from homesickness and culture shock. The relationship between Uncle Carl Joe and Carl Ray is frosty, and Aunt Radene is often brought to the verge of fainting or tears. Mary Lou realizes that something untoward is going on with regard to Carl Ray. Her cousins tease her for being babyish and frighten her in the woods. When she finds out that they complain about having to wait on her, Mary Lou empathizes with how Carl Ray must have felt when he first came to stay with them. On the way home to Ohio, Carl Ray confesses that his mother told him that Uncle Carl Joe was not his biological father and that his biological father lived in Easton. Later, when they return to Easton, he confesses that his biological father and benefactor was Mr. Furtz.

When Carl Ray has a car accident and is unconscious in hospital for several days, Mary Lou despairs and prays for him to wake up. When he does wake, he goes back to live in West Virginia with Uncle Carl Joe, the man who raised him as his child.

Before turning in the journal, Mary Lou reflects on the fact that the summer was more eventful than she anticipated, and she is anxious about her new English teacher Mr. Birkway reading it.