CM . . .
. Volume XVI Number 11. . . .November 13, 2009
Langdon, AB: Orange Monkey Publishing (www.avivabelharold.com) 2009.
378 pp., pbk., $19.95.
Grades 9-12 / Ages 14-17.
Review by Ann Ketcheson.
"What are you doing here?" I finally screamed out, irritated to have this disruption from an unwelcome guest. I had a life to finish!
After an eternity, during which he seemed to be taking notice of everything in my room –– from the stuffed unicorns set up on the wall shelves above the desk, to the miniature glass figures my dad had given to me, displayed on top of my dresser, and the note I had left face down on the desk –– he looked at his hands and answered in that same faraway voice, "I'm not sure."
"Then leave!" I demanded, and stood to one side of the door so he could get by. Instead he just sat looking down at the floor. Why wouldn't he leave? I took several steps towards him and started to yell "Get out! Get out! Get out!" over and over again, but all he did was look up at me and shake his head.
"I don't think I can," he finally said, and this time his voice seemed to lose some of its hollowness. I took another step in his direction. Now I was only a foot from where he sat. His gaze was unblinking. "You see, I think I'm dead."
Safe describes only 23 days of Mariah's existence, but it could be a lifetime. From wanting to end it all in the first few pages of the novel, she becomes a young woman with a will to live and to find every possible happiness in life. The catalyst for this major change is Toby, a ghost whose destiny seems to be righting some of the many mistakes he made in life while at the same time helping Mariah overcome a variety of problems, some of which are only too real and some of which exist completely in her mind. The "still small voice" which we all experience takes shape for Mariah as a supernatural being who stays with her 24/7 for 23 days and who, because of some sort of inexplicable psychic bond, can never be more than a few feet away from her.
Mariah and Toby have a great deal to handle in just over three weeks together. Mariah has self-esteem issues, especially about her appearance and her weight, and so is a target for bullies who torment her verbally and physically. As well, she has to deal with a brother who is abusive to her and a drug-dealing gang member. Her mother swings from neglecting Mariah entirely to treating her like an unpaid servant whose job it is to keep the house clean and do the laundry and grocery shopping. Meanwhile, Toby tries to atone for causing a great deal of suffering, hardship and heartache during his short life. He was a leader in his peer group but led his friends astray into situations involving drugs, sex and even rape.
This novel will appeal to many young adult readers for both its supernatural and all too lifelike qualities. Despite its nearly 400 pages, the book is never tedious. The plot moves quickly from one crisis to another, reminiscent of a fast-paced movie. The characters are convincing and range from the very nasty group of bullies at Mariah's school to the small circle of friends she eventually finds. Mariah finds herself attracted to "bad boy" Tony while, at the same time, indifferent to Elijah who seems to be an ideal friend/boyfriend. In typical 15-year-old fashion, Mariah is on an emotional roller coaster which only Toby (her alter-ego?) seems able to calm. The adult characters in the novel are more developed than in some young adult fiction. The school's staff provides both good and bad examples of how to handle issues such as bullying, and the depictions of parents are also fleshed out, although the parents play no major roles in the book. The high school setting certainly tends to focus on what may be the grim reality in many schools. Teen readers will undoubtedly relate to some, if not all, of the gritty details.
If Safe has a shortcoming, it is perhaps that the novel tries to do too much. Suicide, self-esteem, bullying, teen sex and pregnancy, drugs, guns and gangs, peer pressure, divorce, dysfunctional families... the list goes on and on. Hopefully teen readers will be interested in the topics but not have experience with many of them! As the title indicates, Mariah finds her way through a maze of events and emotions and appears to be mentally and physically safe when the book ends, although she has matured enough to realize that there is no guarantee of safety or happiness in one's life. She has at least learned that she doesn't have to continually take on the role of victim, whether a victim of external bullying or of internal criticism.
Because the novel is written in the first person, readers are privy to many of Mariah's or her ghostly alter ego's emotions and thoughts. Occasionally this sounds just a bit "preachy," and the author's voice is the one we hear. For instance, "I think we're heading in the right direction. It's a process, a journey—there are no quick solutions. If I have learned anything from my life, it's that to try and get instantly better is only a trap. Mariah, give yourself time. You'll get it soon enough. Just keep it firm in your mind that you are wired this way. Don't let false happiness hinder your quest for true joy."
This novel is long and complex and suited to mid- and older teens who are willing to take on many characters, a plot with many twists and turns and some very difficult moral and ethical problems. Safe raises questions about how we treat ourselves and how we treat others. Given the chance, for what parts of life would we wish to atone? What actions would we wish undone? Bel'Harold presents Toby as a voice of conscience who returns to this world to attempt some sort of reconciliation process. More importantly, she gives us Mariah, who teaches readers that avoiding misunderstandings (or worse!) in the first place is something to which we might all aspire.
Ann Ketcheson, a retired teacher-librarian and former teacher of high school English and French, lives in Ottawa, ON.
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