I've fallen out of the habit of reading back matter on books. I love to be surprised, and I hate the idea of any little spoiler. So you would think that Elizabeth Scott's Living Dead Girl falling into my hands would have been the ultimate "not in Kansas anymore" disaster. I picked up a bunch of blog buzz before I opened it, though, so I was semi-prepared for what I was in for-- I say semi because I'm not sure there's anything that could prepare one for such a devastating read.
I read this book in a breathless gulp, whenever I had a spare moment. I read it in line while waiting for John Green to sign my book (one of his, not LDG), for crying out loud. I only had two pages to go when my turn came up and I was this close to letting people in front of me until I finished. I finished right after the signing, before I could walk home even.
Elizabeth Scott, who knew you had this story in you? (I reckon you did, Elizabeth.)
The thing about this book is that it is absolutely brutal, shocking, heartbreaking. But the voice is so true, and the writing so skilled that life stories are conveyed with the absolute minimum of words. An entire back story about Alice's captor is revealed in a few key details. I never got the sense of forced exposition. And though Scott does not shy away from the reality of what goes on with a young girl and a psychotic pedophile, there is nothing gratuitous. It's such an accomplishment, the most important part for me being that that there was something about the character of broken, living-dead-girl Alice that made never want to give up hope even as things got darker and more impossible.
I have very strong opinions about what happened at the end, and I imagine I'm not the first to liken it to The Giver. But wow. Just wow. I have not been able to get this book out of my head and I don't think I will any time soon.
There has been some controversy about whether this book should be classified as YA at all, due to its violent and extremely upsetting subject matter. As with all books, I think that this will be exactly right for many teens, and exactly wrong for many more. The "16 and up" suggestion seems about right to me, but then again I could not get enough true crime in my early teens. Conversely, I know many adults that would not be able to handle the book. It's a matter of knowing your reader, and I think that many teens are ready for a story such as this.
A very important function of fiction is to confront readers with depictions of the human condition, to hold a mirror up to it and sometimes shine a light on a part that is mysterious or previously left in the dark. Some stories are harsh, it doesn't make sense to avoid them. Working through such things in fiction might help us make sense of how there is evil in the world, sometimes it might remind us to be a little more careful, or to look more closely at the people around us and think about what's going on in their lives. And sometimes a book such as Living Dead Girl might just be an amazingly moving literary experience, which doesn't need to be justified for more than it's own sake. What I'm saying is that, within reason, we shouldn't assume that because a story scares us to our bones that young adults automatically need to be discouraged from it. I'm not saying I'd hand this to a random 12 year old, just that some young readers are equipped to process tragic novels and I wouldn't want to keep them from one of the most affecting works I've read in a long time. I hope this book finds its way to the right audience and vice versa.
On a lighter note, I just have to say that the Brothers Green are even that much more adorable in real life, and say what you will about the staggering internet celebrity that may have inadvertently dwarfed either of their original pursuits, but sitting in a room with hundreds of teenagers (and some elders such as myself) who were So! Excited! About books and ideas and changing the world!--this movement they've inspired and the energy around it, which transcends selling books, I nearly exploded with pride and optimism about the future of this country. If John and Hank are the new pin-ups for a certain subset of young people, then it's surely a world I want to keep living in. Nerds 4-Ever. Now on to Paper Towns!
Written material copyright 2008 Dawn A. Emerman