Told in the first-person by the oldest child, the precocious Hannah, Dented Cans is a portrait of a dysfunctional family headed by passive parents who refuse to confront their secrets. Dad collects dented cans, especially ones without labels, which he can buy at a deep discount. Mom takes photos at every opportunity, but buries them in scrapbooks that never get opened.
When the reader meets young Hannah, she is saving her money to buy a second-hand car, her ticket out of the dull suburban life of North Prospect, Connecticut, which she shortens to, “No Prospect.” Her younger brother, Ryan, is a typical 14-year-old slacker, a sharp-tongued boy with no interest in academics. The youngest, Ben, is eight years old. He suffers from a severe disability that makes him prone to communicates by making sounds. Hannah is the only family member who makes any attempt to understand and engage Ben.
Walsh makes effective use of the dented cans and never-opened scrapbooks as symbols of what ails the Sampsons. The juxtaposition of Disney World and the delusional world of Hannah’s parents underscores the story’s theme.
The strongest aspect of Dented Cans is the voice of Hannah. A prescient, wise-cracking teen-ager, Hannah carries the story with witty, piercing observations about her odd family. She engages the reader right away and we root for her to get to the bottom of the reasons behind the family’s bizarre behavior. She is reminiscent of the unnamed teen-aged main character in JoAnn Beard’s brilliant debut novel, In Zanesville.
Despite the oddness of the Sampsons, Walsh draws them in a way that makes the reader sympathize with this family. Hannah yearns to break free of her family, but worries about what her departure would do to Ben.
Walsh writes with great insight into the dynamics of the family. One cannot help but think that there is a little bit of the Sampsons in each of our families.