________________ CM . . . . Volume XXIII Number 4. . . .September 30, 2016


The Girl in the Well is Me.

Karen Rivers.
Toronto, ON: Dancing Cat Books, 2016.
156 pp., trade pbk. & html, $12.95 (pbk.).
ISBN 978-1-77086-464-1 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-77086-465-8 (html).

Grades 5-8 / Ages 10-13.

Review by Todd Kyle.

**** /4



If I die, they’ll put teddy bears at the top of the well. They’ll sprinkle flower petals down on me and the goats like rain, and the fleas will catch them and eat them, and the coyote will say, wisely, “These girls were never your friends!” And I will nod, sagely, in my white ghostly dress and say, “Yes, yes, yes, but now I can haunt them.” I will haunt them with bad hair. I will stick things in their perfect braids while they sleep, like chewed gum and the poop of a goat.

If I get to be alive, I am going to be best friends with the girl with the glasses and bad hair and weird clothes and the limps. I am going to find the kids who are like me, skating champions who happen to love the sounds of silence and music playing loud in a car roaring down a highway toward a place where it snows, a place that is real, not a dusty, dry dream.


Kammie, 11, moves from a middle-class suburban existence in New Jersey to a dusty, forlorn Texas prison town with her mother and brother to be near their father who was convicted in a high profile embezzling case. Lonely and desperate, she attempts to befriend a popular trio of girls named Mandy, Kandy, and Sandy, who subject her to cruel initiation rites. One of them involves her walking across the mouth of a dried-up well on a rotting board. The board breaks, leaving her wedged deep in the well, her arms pinned to her sides. In the hours that Kammie is trapped, gasping for air while the girls seek help and the emergency responders figure out what to do, she thinks about her tragic life so far, often blacking out, dreaming and hallucinating, and finally coming to terms with her own peculiarity and her less-than-perfect life. The well is finally dug out, and she is rescued.

     The Girl in the Well is Me is not a book for every middle grader, nor is it for the faint of heart. What it is, is a strange, wonderful, stream-of-consciousness screed, one with little regard for plot, resolution, explanation, or denouement. Kammie’s every thought is utterly compelling, her self-pity wrenching, her imagination fascinating, her near-psychosis entirely believable. Readers will be frustrated by the lack of justice delivered to the pathologically cruel Mandy, Kandy, and Sandy (who wait until after they eat dinner to report Kammie’s situation to adults!) but will find the book impossible to put down until the satisfying end. When Kammie realizes, as in the quote above, that living means accepting your circumstances and letting “your freak flag fly”, she finds herself delivered from the trap of self-pity as much as from the well.

     What Rivers has done, seemingly impossible, is to take an existential, almost tortuous internal dialogue, of the type of some of the world’s best literature (think: Sartre) and make it entirely relevant, even accessible, to young readers. She’s even introduced surrealism, albeit mainly due to Kammie’s oxygen-deprivation and her attending bizarre thoughts and hallucinations (imagining a French-speaking goat is in the well with her, for example). Her father’s crime is almost bizarre, too—he embezzled funds from a last-wish foundation for terminally ill children, an action leading Kammie to agonize over her guilt and disgust.

     Told in a flowing, unfiltered, run-on-sentence style directly from Kammie’s brain, The Girl in the Well is Me is a scream of defiance just barely winning over despair. Utterly brilliant.

Highly Recommended.

Todd Kyle is the CEO of the Newmarket Public Library in Ontario and President of the Ontario Library Association.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
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