________________ CM . . . . Volume XIV Number 14 . . . . March 7, 2008


Innercity Girl Like Me.

Sabrina Bernardo
Toronto, ON: HarperCollins, 2008.
293 pp., pbk., $15.99.
ISBN 978-0-00-639440-2.

Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.

Review By Ian Stewart.

**** /4


"Darrel, listen, man I'm sorry. I meant no disrespect, bro. I'm tripping out on acid."

"It takes two," Darrel said solemnly. "I didn't fuck her. We didn't fuck at lot. Only tonight, tonight was the only time, bro. I feel like such an ass."

"Well you should," I said. I couldn't help but interfere. "You know what, Omar? You're a guy, I'm a guy, and guys think with their dicks. But Amanda, she should have known better," Darrel said.

"Dicks before chicks?" Omar asked him.

"Bros before hos," Darrel said.

"G's up and hos down," Omar concluded. They exchanged the Diablos' handshake. I stood back feeling sick.

I looked up at him but I didn't see Darrel McKay, my friend from the old school or Gina's kid brother who talked to me like he was my own. This was not my boyfriend, my lover, and my confidant. I saw a savage gang member; a replica of his gang-member father who abused his wife for years. He was nothing more to me than a low-life Central piece of drug dealing shit. Whatever happened to being solid, I thought to myself.

Originally from Winnipeg, first time novelist Sabrina Bernardo explores the ugly core of her former city's inner-city gang culture. With searing brutality, and unflinching honesty, Bernardo's expletive laced work has a seldom seen authenticity. Some will be offended by the language, the explicit sex, the drug use and the lack of humanity shown by these young men and women; however, it's worth the risk.

     The novel’s focus on the lives of the teenage girls who become involved in inner-city gang culture makes the book particularly valuable to teachers, social-service workers, university and high school students, whether they live or work in the inner-city or the suburbs. As a sociological study of dysfunctional families and the lives of young women, it compares favourably with Adrien LaBlanc's masterful longitudinal study of inner-city life in New York, Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx (2003).

     Maria, the book's main character, lives around Central Park, formerly a lovely downtown area just north of Winnipeg's famous Portage Avenue, but now a hub of gang activity studiously avoided by honest citizens after dark. Her life story is pretty common for inner-city youths: poverty, dysfunctional family, lack of parental supervision and positive social values, peer group pressures and teachers who give up too easily on their students. School and a future of minimum wage jobs don't hold much allure for Maria and her friends.

     She's becomes a member of the Diablos, at 13, and is given the name G-Child. The gang provides her with an image of well-being and power. She soon moves into an apartment with the girls in the gang who become her surrogate sisters, and they enjoy the easy life of petty criminals suffused with drugs, alcohol and casual sex. The gang protects them from random street violence, and she dedicates herself to fighting the Diablos hated North End rivals, the Street Ryders. She soon comes to realize that women in the male dominated world of gangs are little more than "hos" to be passed from gang member to gang member and who are expected to accept being beaten for arguing with their "man" or just because he's "pissed-off " at something. Her virtual family breaks down as it starts to make money dealing crack-cocaine for Winnipeg's bike gangs. Money becomes everything, and gang leaders ally themselves with its former rivals to secure more of the drug trade. Her friends become addicts and accept being "pimped-out" by their boyfriends to feed their habits. Maria knows she has to get out of Winnipeg's gang-life. Eventually, she decides to make a break with a former gang girl who is moving to Calgary to hook-up with some friends starting up a new drug dealing operation. It's not a new life; it's the same old song replayed somewhere else.

     On reading this book, the questions that continually come to mind are: Can Maria ever save herself? Can others save her? Was she lost from the beginning? What are the chances for children living in Winnipeg's, Toronto's, Vancouver's or Regina's inner-city? Is the glass half full or half empty; is it one-quarter full or three-quarters empty or just empty?

Highly Recommended.

Ian Stewart is a resource teacher at David Livingstone School located in the heart of Winnipeg's inner-city.

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

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