Story of a Girl – Sarah Zarr
When Deanna was 13 her Dad caught her having sex in a car with one of her older brother’s friends. No charges were brought, but the story got around and Deanna has felt like a punchline ever since. The kids at school still talk about it, and her father has never forgiven her or gotten past the incident. It’s been years, but in many people’s minds, she’s still Deanna “the slut.” She’s seventeen now, and wants to get out of her going-nowhere town, but would settle for finding an apartment with her brother Darren, his girlfriend Stacy and their baby. The first step is to get a summer job, where she ends up working with Tommy, the boy from the car.
This is the rare YA book that isn’t plot driven. More stuff happens, but it’s really about Deanna’s emotional journey towards accepting herself and forgiving the people around her who have let her down. One of Zarr’s strengths is how well she writes about families and how sympathetically she writes about their failures. But on the other hand, she also lets her happy families and nice adults have interesting stories. Not even Tommy is treated like a monster. It forces you to reconsider your assumptions about all of its characters.
For me, this book didn’t have the same emotional impact as Sweethearts, but only because it didn’t speak to my personal experience as strongly as that one did. But I can imagine that it would have that impact on teenage girls who have let themselves be silenced by others’ low expectations. From what I remember when I saw Zarr speak at a library meeting (when she was in town for the National Book Awards), she grew up poor. And even if her stories aren’t autiobiographical, those experiences have clearly influenced how richly she writes about under-privileged lives. Urban poverty is pretty well chronicled in YA books. But what happens in smaller, dying towns and her characters’ fight to cling to the middle-class is fresh. This extra layer of realistic background makes her stories very powerful.