CM . . .
. Volume XIV Number 20 . . . . May 30, 2008
Everybody knew Diana the bathroom lady. She was in her forties, with bleached blonde hair and heavy-metal tattoos. Her job was to spend her entire day outside the girls’ bathroom making sure nothing nasty was happening – no drugs, no fights, . . . no suicides.
“I don’t have one.”
Although Julia and her closest friend, Q, made a pact in the seventh grade that neither would join a gang, staying out has been a difficult choice. But, when Eric Valienté, a new student who has transferred to South Bay, appears in her classes, things get complicated. And despite the relationship that develops between the two, things get really complicated when Eric confesses that back in Detroit, he was a Crip, a gang member. Although they break up, when Julia finds out from girlfriends of Crip rivals that Eric is targeted for attack at another Friday night dance, she warns him. She has become “a snitch,” and because, as everyone knows “snitches get stitches” the terror begins. Seemingly, her only solution is to “jump in” and become a Crip, too, if only for the protection the gang will provide.
With Julia’s choice to join the gang, van Diepen situates us in the day-to-day life of gang culture – its lawlessness, defiance of authority and abuse of internal power, its random violence, its casual sex and drug use, and, at the same time, the overwhelming loyalty of gang members to their “family” network. For most gang members, conventional family structures are absent: their parents have disappeared, abuse drugs and alcohol, have severe mental and physical health problems, or are in prison. Some, like Julia’s dad, are single parents working to put food on the table and are able to spare little time with their children (although he worries terribly about his daughter). No wonder gang membership offers a feeling of belonging.
Once in, Julia is faced with a series of difficult decisions – how to keep the truth from her father, whether or not to end friendships with girl-friends she had trusted, and finally, how to resolve her relationship with Eric. All are tough choices, and a final vicious attack on both Eric and Julia clarifies the future.
Snitch is a compelling read. Van Diepen spent three and a half years teaching at a dangerous public high school in Brooklyn, and this book is an incredible distillation of that experience. Her ear for dialogue, her deftness with description, and her insight into the strange little society that is high school make this a book that teens will read. Yes, the language is profane and yes, it’s about gangs, but, more importantly, it’s about life as it is for many students, Canadian and American, in tough, inner-city high schools.
Joanne Peters is a teacher-librarian at Kelvin High School in Winnipeg, MB.
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