CM . . .
. Volume XIX Number 7. . . .October 19, 2012
My Book of Life by Angel.
Toronto, ON: Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press, 2012.
246 pp., trade pbk. & EPUB, $14.95 (pbk.), $12.95 (EPUB).
ISBN 978-1-55498-117-5 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-55498-317-9 (EPUB).
Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.
Review by Darleen Golke.
I walked to my corner
at the gate of ten thousand happinesses
and I stared at my shoes while I walked,
stared at them walking me there again.
That's how I get to my corner
at the gate of ten thousand happinesses
I stood on the kiddie corner
where I always do,
just a line in the sidewalk
between me and the midtrack.
Widow works the midtrack
on the other side of the line.
Widow waits for men
who are not into little girls like me.
She says, at least I'm not a lowtrack girl.
Widow says to me all the time,
I don't feel anything
it's just a big whatever –
I've got the menu memorized
makes no nevermind to me
But she cares if I cross the line in the sidewalk.
According to a poster released by The Missing Women Task Force, 2007, between the years 1978 and 2001, 65 women disappeared from the Vancouver Downtown Eastside. Most of the missing women were sex workers; unfortunately the law enforcement community responded slowly to the missing person reports suggesting the women had just run away, moved away, or simply chosen to disappear. Even when a sex worker reported Robert "Willie" Pickton had handcuffed and attacked her, the authorities did not consider her a credible witness and charges against Pickton were stayed. When Pickton was finally arrested in 2002, he admitted to killing 49 women, and investigators found remains and DNA of 32 of the missing women on his Port Coquitlan pig farm. Pickton was tried for 26 murders, convicted on six counts and sentenced to life in prison. The Task Force continues to investigate the remaining missing women's cases.
The Missing Women Case inspired Leavitt to create Angel, a 16-year-old who, when her friend and protector, Serena, disappears, begins a "book" and writes on the front, "My Book of Life by Angel / Which is My Real Name, / and This is My Real Story / for Maybe an Angel to Read." Like many young girls with family issues, Angel is vulnerable to predators like Call Jones who initially treats her with kindness, then introduces her to "candy" and addiction. Angel believes Call is her boyfriend, but quickly discovers he considers her property when he asks her first "just to be nice to a friend, / then a friend of a friend," and sends her to work daily on the "kiddie track," insisting she maintain the look of a pure and innocent 13-year-old because "sixteen doesn't make as much money / as thirteen." Angel admits, "A yes can change you inside, / make all the rules go sky-why-not." Serena, another prostitute, had taught Angel to think about seeing angels when situations became difficult and had given Angel her "running-away money / to hide under [the] mattress," urging Angel to write about some of the women and the living conditions in the Vancouver Downtown Eastside – "Blood Alley / and Pigeon Park - / the cardboard tents / and the water rats / and the delousing showers / the SROs and the cockroaches / the people drinking out of puddles/ and all the girls going missing."
Realizing that the missing Serena is probably dead, Angel resolves to take charge of her life. She writes to her father and refuses Call's candy, despite the agony of withdrawal. "On Call's candy the universe seems a friendly place, / but without it, it shows you its grumpy side. / It doesn't like you to have opinions or too many shoes. / It frowns at you / and shows you how stupid you've been." Angel shakes, sweats, coughs, and vomits what she imagines are "bits of stomach," maybe "bits of spleen," a "piece of lung," a "chunk of heart." Nevertheless, determined to beat the addiction, she persists and, at Call's insistence, works despite her pain. As Angel leaves a drug-induced stupor that helped her float through dealing with the johns, she realizes months have passed: "I would like to report nine months missing."
One day she returns to Call's apartment to find he has brought an angel in the form of little Melli, just 11, to help Angel earn the money Call needs. Call considers himself an entrepreneur who needs girls to keep him in cash, and, like most pimps, he controls Angel with drugs, violence, threats to harm Angel's younger brother and Melli. Angel, knowing she must protect innocent 11-year-old Melli at all costs, promises to work for two as she takes Melli along to her corner at the "gate of ten thousand happinesses" and asks Widow, an experienced sex worker, to watch over the child while Angel services the johns. Angel's "dates" run the gamut from scared teenagers to child psychologists and university professors to, ultimately, Daddy Dave, a cop who Call arranges Angel to service. While Daddy Dave uses Angel, Call initiates Melli with one of his clients, and she returns "boneless and broken / her eyes speaking the same language as her mouth." With her mind clear, Angel formulates a plan to use Daddy Dave by stealing his wallet, then accepting payment in the form of his watch and years-of-service tie pin. She confronts Daddy Dave at the police station where she fortunately finds a helpful "young officer with white hair" who takes charge of Melli while Daddy Dave threatens, manhandles, and body-searches Angel looking for his police tie pin she has hidden in her journal. Melli, who has remained essentially mute since Call abducted her, finds her voice, tells the officer about Call and Daddy Dave, actions which ultimately allow Angel to make her escape. She walks to her favorite bookstore and buys her own copy of Paradise Lost (a book one of her professor "clients" had her read to him), so she can read the entire book. "All the world. It said that. / It said in book twelve / that all the world was before them [Adam and Eve] / and they could choose."
Written as a young girl's journal in verse, My Book of Life by Angel tells Angel's story as she struggles against seemingly impossible odds to save herself and another innocent child. The ugly world of child prostitution unfolds through Angel's powerful voice, leaving the reader with haunting images and emotional reactions to the mindless cruelty of not only those who manipulate and exploit children, but of those who deliberately ignore the reality in that social stratum. Each chapter opens with an apt quotation from Paradise Lost. "John the john," a misogynistic professor, insists Angel read aloud from book nine as he services himself and lectures her about Milton's literary excellence. Leavitt's skill at harnessing the power of words flows smoothly in lyrical passages that reverberate with emotional depth with the rhythms, cadences, and structure of free verse mirroring Angel's thought processes as she shares her experiences, observations, and responses with the reader. The deplorable exploitation of children is handled matter-of-factly which only serves to enhance the poignancy of the gritty tale; however, the sensitive nature of the subject matter and the complex themes may disturb some readers even though Leavitt is careful to infuse a glimmer of hope. Young adult and adult readers will find the novel an easy and quick read, but will find Angel's compelling character and world difficult to forget.
Darleen Golke, a retired high school teacher-librarian, writes from Abbotsford, BC.
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