Damaged Families, Resilient Girls
I read SNOW LANE and THE BENEFITS OF BEING AN OCTOPUS back to back. Both are about abusive family situations and narrated by girls who don’t reveal the depth and details of the abuse until they’re well into their stories. Both are excellent, but in different ways.
In OCTOPUS, Zoey doesn’t address the abuse early because she doesn’t recognize it herself. When she does, it’s not all at once, but in bits and pieces, and the realization is strongly tied to her gradual recognition that her own actions can change things. Through her eyes, we see how Lenny’s verbal abuse impacts people in different ways. Like when Zoey uses the phrase “Little Miss Clueless” on herself (158), but then rejects that self-criticism when she realizes it’s a phrase that Lenny used on her mother (152).
Similarly, the small, but frequent reminders of the way poverty impacts Zoey and her family build up . Like when Matt brings a smoothie onto the bus:
I try to picture my mom pulling herself out of bed to make me a smoothie because I’m tired in the morning. As if she wasn’t exhausted. As if she didn’t have to take care of Hector. As if Frank wouldn’t throw a fit for getting woken up by a blender. As if we had a working blender. As if we had bananas.
As if. (83)
Initially Zoey swallows those reminders with shame, but eventually gets more angry about them.
The octopus analogy works well enough, and makes sense as a sort of defense mechanism that a girl like Zoey would use. It almost seemed overdone at times. But I really like the way it drops off towards the end of the book, in tandem with Zoey’s emergence as a more assertive person. Unless I missed it, there were no octopus mentions in the last 60 pages or so, except for when they’re driving away from Lenny and she mentions it more as a protective role in relation to the people she loves (234). Nicely done.
In SNOW LANE, Annie’s first-person narrative conveys the chaos of her household and the bullying from sisters pretty vividly (though also kind of casually), but she avoids directly describing the even more frightening abuse of her mother for quite a while. That moment when it’s revealed is as powerful as anything I’ve read this year. We don’t really know that her mother has been abusing Annie until it happens:
I can’t understand why she would want to hurt me, and that hurts more than the hitting. Not right away, but later. It’s like an echo that gets louder the farther away it is because it keeps coming back, and each time it comes back to you it hurts more and more. No matter how hard you push it down, or tell yourself it isn’t happening, it is happening. It’s happening to me right now and I can’t pretend it isn’t anymore. I can’t pretend it doesn’t happen anymore.
It’s about a coat, but it’s not about a coat. It’s never what it’s about.
And now I’m not just in trouble. I’m in danger. I can tell by her eyes… (119)
The growing realization of just how damaged her family is, and how resourceful Annie is as she tries to survive it, is very well crafted. It’s not a generic story with messages about abuse, it’s about a distinct and memorable family and how that abuse rules their lives. The plot elements are engaging and specific. When Annie has to go on a date along with her sister Aurora, it’s odd at first, and almost seems like it could be amusing, but then there’s the awful boyfriend and the long walk home and then a fight between older sisters, which leads to Aurora running away. (148-157) And while Annie relates the events, we see her exhaustive efforts to keep peace, cheer people up, and cover up the troubles, even though it’s all way more than she can fix.
Like OCTOPUS, there’s some hope in the end of SNOW LANE, and it seems credible, especially in terms of Annie’s hopes and expectations once the family is finally getting help:
I want to make it better. And not just for us kids, but for Mom and Dad, too. I want it to be us, but not the worst us. I want the best us. Even if that’s still a little crappy.” (186)
Both of these books garnered October nominations (two for OCTOPUS, three for SNOW LANE), and have more already coming in during this current November round. Both seem like strong candidates for our list of 15 finalists, but there’s plenty of competition….
Filed under: Book Discussion
About Steven Engelfried
Steven Engelfried was the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon until he retired after 35 years as a full-time librarian. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at email@example.com.
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