Wednesday, September 05, 2007

No Deposit? No Return!

Returnable Girl by Pamela Lowell
5Q 4P, J S
(for those who need to know, some swearing, some sexual situations involving secondary characters)

I seem to be on a run of this-makes-my-heart-ache books right now, and this book is right up there at the top of them. The writing is strong and you'd have to be made of granite not to feel something when you read Ronnie's story. This is one of two books I've read recently where the voice is so strong and authentic it makes you forget it's actually being told by an adult writer, not the teenager who is supposedly telling it. (The other book is Billie Standish Was Here, which I will write about soon.)

When I think back on the times my parents left us alone for a few hours, I don't remember ever being scared. We never had a doubt that they were coming back soon. Ronnie isn't so lucky. The first time she remembers her mother leaving her, she was five years old. When I was five, my older brothers watched over me. At five, Ronnie was taking care of her little brother. Whew.

Flash forward seven or eight years. Ronnie isn't taking care of her little brothers anymore, because her little brothers and her mother are all the way across the country, in Alaska. When they packed up and left, there was "no room" for Ronnie, so she was left behind. That probably had something to do with her mother's boyfriend Kenny, since Kenny hated Ronnie and the feeling was mutual. Ronnie knows her mother is an alcoholic drug abuser, but she doesn't care. She desperately wants to be with her mother and brothers. But instead, Ronnie has been shunted from foster home to foster home. Alison is her tenth placement, her eleventh if you count the time she stayed with her uncle and aunt. She's been returned from all of those placements, because nobody would put up with a girl who throws things, lies, steals, and says hateful things. Nobody will put up with a girl as angry as she is. But maybe, just maybe, Alison will be different.

Alison has strict rules for Ronnie. No throwing, no lying, no stealing. But Alison has something else for Ronnie, too: love and understanding. No matter how much trouble Ronnie gets herself into, Alison is there for her. In fact, Alison would like to adopt her. Ronnie is all mixed up. Her mother constantly makes excuses for why Ronnie can't come join them. She's in and out of halfway houses and therapy. She promises not to drink or do drugs, and then does. She makes appointments with Ronnie and then breaks them. On the other hand, Alison is rock solid. She doesn't make promises she doesn't intend to keep. And Ronnie, even though she's afraid to trust anyone, knows that Alison would never leave her. Still, she longs to be with her mother. Should she let Alison adopt her, or should she hold out for the day when her mother will send for her?

As if this wasn't enough for her to deal with, Ronnie also has to deal with a typical problem of an eighth grader: friends and popularity. Cat, her only friend, lives down the road. She's plump, a little dirty, and definitely considered odd by all the other kids, especially the popular ones. But Cat gets Ronnie, and Ronnie gets her. It's pretty clear from the things Cat tells her that she knows about messed up families. But Ronnie desperately wants to be part of the in crowd. She wants to be best friends with Paige, the most popular girl in eighth grade. But a friend of Cat's has no chance of ever being allowed into Paige's inner circle, so Ronnie distances herself from Cat and works her way into Paige's good graces. The thing is, the way Paige and her gang treat Cat (and make her treat Cat) makes Ronnie feel guilty. And the more she hangs around with Paige, the more ugliness she sees in her. Is being popular worth feeling guilty and doing things she knows are wrong? At least for now, the answer is yes.

In a book that is all about relationships, Ronnie's relationship with God is not to be overlooked. The one good thing her aunt Raylene gave her was a belief in God and in the power of prayer. Ronnie finds comfort in going to church, and its teachings are often in the back of her mind, even if she doesn't always manage to live by them. But when Francis, a youth minister she once knew, comes into her life again, it is a shining moment. When she doesn't dare trust Alison, when her mother disappoints her, Francis is there for her. And it suits her just fine that Francis is there for Alison, too.

The book (written in journal form) takes place over just about a year, and in that time, Ronnie goes through quite a bit. She is betrayed and betrays herself, and she learns to forgive. She learns what it means to be a friend. She begins to trust, and she even begins to allow herself to love and be loved. Most importantly, she discovers what she wants and where she belongs.

Musings: (Some examples of why I liked Ronnie's voice so much. I've found half a dozen things I'd like to quote dealing with her relationships with Alison, Cat, and Paige, but to get the full effect, I'd need to quote four or five paragraphs. Instead of giving you the main course, these shorter passages will have to act as appetizers.)

It didn't surprise me in the least that she would threaten to send me back; eventually, it seems, they all do. Even Alison, with her long, graying hair and her plump stomach that looks soft and cushiony like a broken-in sofa you might want to curl up on someday.

Paige's eyes are her best feature (when they aren't judging you). [It's clear throughout the book that Ronnie knows things she doesn't want to admit to herself. The truth about Paige is one of those things.]

Britnee and Sarika are always with Paige. I mean *constantly* because they are the three most popular girls at school. Sometimes it's like they are one person instead of three. I stood off near the curb, hoping that they wouldn't notice me -- or maybe hoping that they *would*, but in a nice way for a change.

I hadn't realized anyone was keeping track [of how many times she wore her Tshirt last week]. Of course she wouldn't know that wearing this shirt make makes me feel close to my mother, who sent it to me for my birthday last year. It has a picture of Mount McKinley on it and the words, "The Great One." I don't care if it's oversized, stained, and faded -- it's one of my favorites.

Cat gets made fun of by just about everybody at school and it must get to her pretty bad. Sometimes after they tease her I swear there's a deep, sad emptiness in her eyes, right where the happiness is supposed to be.

Midge [her social worker] was right. I won't [use a suitcase]. That's because people who use suitcases are coming back home. It would mean I had a place to come back *to*. And I don't. Not yet. (I wonder if I ever will.)

That's when I made a deal. If Alison would let me stay, then I promised God I would try to be a better person. I would try to be good again, just like I used to be...I would figure out a way to be so good that all that goodness would make its way all the way up to Alaska, and my mother would feel it and know it deep in her heart, and then she would come to get me and take me there to live with her forever (or at least until I was eighteen).

What I didn't tell him was how much I hate [my mother] sometimes. How I imagine myself going up there to her stupid, not-big-enough apartment and punching her in her lazy pot-smoking fact -- until she's black-and-blue and begging for mercy. I hate her so much for putting me through this. For not caring enough to even try.


It's more factual than chatty, but Pamela Lowell has a web site. (She has a MySpace page, too.)

Here's an interview with Pamela Lowell from Little Willow on her blog, Slayground.

If you liked this book, you might like:

The Year of My Miraculous Disappearance by Catherine Ryan Hyde

Cynnie's mother is nearly always passed out drunk. If she's not passed out, she's working on it. That leaves Cynnie to care for her three-year-old brother, who has Down's Syndrome. But Cynnie loves Bill to death, so she doesn't mind taking care of him. She does mind that her mother doesn't take care of either of them, and she does care when her grandparents take Bill away. In fact, she cares so much, especially about the latter, that she can't deal with him being gone. The only thing that makes her feel better is alcohol. It makes everything blurry and takes away the pain. But it never takes away her longing for Bill, so she is determined to get him back. How she goes about this and what happens as a result is heart-wrenching but ultimately hopeful.

You can find out more about this book on Catherine Ryan Hyde's web site or read a review at

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