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May 8, 2007 > Footnotes


Dominique: I recently had the joy of reading three excellent novels, all for teenagers and young adults. The writing in each was engaging, the images vivid, and the characters memorable. More importantly, each touched on subjects that are complicated and uncomfortable. Still I find myself returning to these stories again and again, each time thinking about the reasons I found them so compelling.

"The Cure" by Sonia Levitin, Harper Trophy, paperback, $6.99 (2000)
Twins Gemma and Gemm live in a society in the future, where everyone wears masks, must appear the same and act the same because conformity makes society run smoothly. All must drink shakes treated with serotonin to inhibit irrational thought and individual behavior.

Gemm, however, has become plagued by dreams of 'something' that has a sound, a rhythm. One day - he just can't help it - he begins to make noises (music?). He is immediately taken into custody, tried, and given the harshest sentence, a choice between being 'recycled' (killed) or 'cured.' Since his sister would share his fate if he were recycled, Gemm chooses the 'cure,' to be sent back in time to experience a virtual reality lifestyle that will erase his desire to be different, his desire to make music.

Gemm is sent back to 1348 Strasbourg, France, to live as Johannes, the 16-year-old son of a Jewish moneylender. How in the world will this cure him? And what will happen if it doesn't?

The harshness of the life Johannes lives is mitigated by the love of his family, the music, and the blossoming of feelings he has for the butcher's daughter. As you read Johannes' story, though, you are very aware that this life is the opposite of the one Gemm should experience, and that paints this story with a sense of eminent trouble. You hope everything will work out for Gemm, but you don't see how it possibly could. A fascinating story - one that makes the reader wonder, "Which would I choose? To be recycled? Or to live a life that will make me into something I'm not?"

"Rules of Survival" by Nancy Werlin, Dial hardback, $16.99 (2006)

Seventeen year old Matt writes a letter to his youngest sister Emily to tell her why things happened the way they did. He wants to explain why they can't live with their mother, why he felt the need to protect her, and why he turned to a complete stranger to beg for help. The simple explanation would be that their mother Nikki is crazy, or an addict, or perhaps a measure of both. The more correct explanation is a lot more complicated.

Nikki, at turns, ignores her three children, or smothers them with demands for affection and loyalty. Her temper is ferocious, and springs on the children unexpectedly. At times, she's mercurial and frightening and at other times lethargic. They find themselves relieved whenever Nikki is distracted by a new boyfriend, but even some of those have turned out to be dangerous.

Abuse in this story is deftly handled, not explicit; most of it is not physical, but mental. Matt shows amazing courage while trying to protect his sisters. He has moments where he doubts himself and doubts that they will ever be able to escape the monster that birthed them. The portrayal of other adults in the story is also carefully done - they don't just jump in to rescue the children, unsure what to do. I think that the feeling of realism is perhaps the scariest aspect of all. How many children around us are experiencing something like this? How many adults simply do not see?

"Endgame" by Nancy Garden, Harcourt hardback, $17.00 (2006)

The story unfolds in a series of interviews conducted by the lawyer for Glen Wilton, who is in police custody. It seems Glen lost his mind one day; took a gun into his high school killing four people and leaving another on the critical list. The media portray the victims as much beloved, heroes in their school. A memorial is being planned; flowers are left in school hallways with sympathy cards for grieving families. The killer is described as a violent video game junky, a loner, someone who has previously been in trouble in his former school district.

For the reader, it is hard to see any way that Mrs. Garden could possibly make Glen into a sympathetic character. As the narration begins, he seems sullen and unresponsive. He doesn't want to go over what happened that day, so the lawyer asks for him to recount the beginning, when he moved into a new town and started at a new high school. We learn that he is a musician and a skilled archer. His older brother Peter is popular and has a girlfriend. We also learn about Glen's torment at the hands of the school jocks.

In light of recent events, this fascinating novel is timely but hardly comforting. It will make some people take a hard look at their own behavior. How many times have we ignored cruel actions at the expense of another? Or worse, how many times have we laughed? How many times have we looked at someone who was clearly an outsider and wished they would just go away?

Mrs. Garden has a sure hand in her portrayal of a young man who feels trapped by his environment - refusing help while also feeling betrayed that help is not forthcoming. The story builds into a taut climax, leaving most to wonder what they could have changed in those circumstances. There is no easy answer which makes the story even more compelling.

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