I read this book as part of my young adult professional development reading group. The book follows a 17-year old girl named Charlie who has been through more in her young life than most of us experience in all of ours. She has been homeless, had a rough family life, battled an unstable and abusive mother, and been forced to live with a man who turned out to be part of a sex ring. To gain some sense of control over her life, she turns to cutting—literally slicing her skin.
Examining the book for classroom use: there are profanities. A lot of profanities. While the language keeps the book “real,” it might be a concern for some teachers or school districts. The content is also a bit rough. While there is no explicit description of sex or drug use, both are certainly mentioned more than once. As I was reading, I thought that teachers might benefit from reading this book, since many students do come from disrupted lives. Hearing Charlie’s voice as she recounts her tale makes it difficult to fault a student for not doing their homework. As teachers, we are never aware of all the demons students are battling, but this novel helped open my eyes to some very grim possibilities.
The novel was a fast read, but the first-person narration made it feel just a bit long for me, since the reader is there learning and growing along with Charlie. In the first section of the novel, she is in an institution and known as “Silent Sue” because she refuses to / cannot speak as a result of the trauma she has experienced. I was strongly reminded of the movie Girl, Interrupted. While it was interesting, I felt claustrophobic as I experienced all that Charlie did—and I believe this was the author’s intent, to really throw us into her perspective. I couldn’t wait for her to get out.
When she did, she traveled from her frigid home to Arizona to live with a friend, since her mother couldn’t handle her (not much is said about her mother, but it’s clear she’s battling her own demons). Most of the story follows her struggles to find herself and her life, despite her past and old tendencies. For instance, she carries her tender kit with her, which includes all the implements she used to cut herself: while she’s making her best effort to stop cutting, she needs to know it’s there and an option. She also has extreme self-esteem issues, causing her to wear long sleeves in the oppressive heat and remain relatively quiet, causing her to be ostracized. Still, she finds her niche in the music scene and eventually befriends her coworkers.
I thought things were picking up for Charlie, but it seems that vicious cycles are a cliché for a reason. Disappointed that her friend is getting married, Charlie becomes attracted to a bad boy who takes her down the wrong path. I enjoyed the author’s talent at putting us in Charlie’s perspective as we understand exactly why she does what she does. In her note to the reader, Glasgow hints at her own experiences in self-mutilation (cutting) and expressed her desire to write this novel as a way of sharing that struggle. She certainly succeeded. I watched as Charlie sabotaged her chances at being an artist and at having a stable life by making decisions based on a past that was in no way her fault nor within her control.
I found the ending satisfying. It was neither a depressing ending nor a Hollywood happy ending, but a glimpse of hope for any young reader in this situation. Despite the “school inappropriate” content, I can think of many students I’ve had over the years—and even peers I attended high school with—who could have benefitted from reading the book to realize they are not alone in their suffering and their struggle.
For those who never found themselves in a situation like Charlie’s, the book could be an eye-opener. What struck me was the impact that “helpers” had on Charlie. From time to time, characters would take small steps to help her, from offering her some food to offering her the chance to sit in on an art class, or even buying her clothes or helping her move into a one-room apartment, every little thing meant something to her. When we constantly hear negative stories in the news, it’s easy to fall into the beliefs that our kind actions don’t matter; but as the book demonstrates, kindness spreads easily and is necessary to help everyone reach their full potential.
Other books reviewed in this YA book club: