When I was in high school, I read Fran Arrick’s Steffie Can’t Come Out to Play (1978) more than once.
I even wrote a book report on it in the ninth grade, when the assigned reading included J. Meade Falkner’s Moonfleet and Robert Westall’s The Machine Gunners. (Wanted: female characters.)
Quite likely this story of a teenager on the streets was as credible on the subject of prostitution as Go Ask Alice was on the matter of drug use/addiction, but no matter: I inhaled the story.
Teen readers today can turn to stories like Heather O’Neill’s Lullabies for Little Criminals and Martine Leavitt’s My Book of Life by Angel (2012): well-written, multi-layered, beautiful and challenging stories about the experiences of women and girls walking the street.
Martine Leavitt explains that the characters in her novel are invented, but “inside my made-up story is much that is true”.
Some common experiences are outlined, but “[e]ach girl’s story is different”.
“Her man, the one who found her, lonesome,
said to his friends,
it’s the ones from good homes
who follow orders best —
it’s the ones from good famiies
who have the best social skills,
who have never learned how to fight –
they make the best money.”
That’s Serena, but it fits for Angel as well. The language is common and familiar and unsentimental, which brings the emotional resonance of the story to the fore.
And not that the more general topic isn’t harrowing and disturbing (abusive relationships and child prostitution), but The Book of Life by Angel plays out on the eastside of Vancouver, before Robert Pickton was arrested and charged.
Following the story, there is a list of the missing women of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, collected in 2007, which reminds the reader that Angel’s experiences might be made-up but these experiences are certainly real.
“He said, Angel, do you love me?
Just do this for me, for us-
soon we’ll be taxpayers,
we’ll have the neighbours over, we’ll volunteer.
You with me, baby?”
Similar to Baby’s experience in Heather O’Neill’s novel, Angel finds an outlet in her writing. (She finds another kind of inspiration in the story, too, but to discuss that would reveal a significant spoiler.)
“I got my notebook
and figured out
when you want to write a poem
you don’t know where it might go.
It’s an act of faith to write a book of you,
to believe a poem
is something you could do.”
This aspect of her experience is one of the major reasons why this book is easy to recommend; the devastation and destruction has a counterpart.
There is no tidy, satin-bowed resolution, but Angel possesses a strength and determination which makes her story resonate beyond the page.
It is both a difficult story to read and a difficult story to set aside: well done, indeed.
Ellen Hopkins is well known for her YA novels, including Tricks (2009). (I recently read her Crank trilogy for the first time as well.)
With her characteristic verse style, the lines wrap mid-phrase, so that the reader is pulled from line to line, awaiting the pause but meantime reading on.
In this volume, another layer of interconnection adds to the desire to read on; one narrator’s segment is often hemmed with the next narrator’s through a shared image or emotion, a link which also adds momentum to the story.
Tricks considers the experiences of five teenagers: Cody, Eden, Ginger, Seth and Whitney. In a short interview, the author discusses the narrators’ stories briefly.
Each of the five teens has been forced into prostitution; the route has varied for each, but they have “chosen” this path as a means of survival.
With the variety of life experiences in their pasts (contrasting economic backgrounds, differing degrees of parental presence, settings ranging from rural to urban, complex webs of sibling/peer relationships), Ellen Hopkins makes it clear that there is no pattern.
The thread which links the story (beyond the experience of prostituion) is that the narratives intersect in Las Vegas.
Everywhere skin. Instead
of Sin City, they should
call this place Skin City.
Female skin. Male skin.
It’s the perfect setting for Ellen Hopkins to explore not only this theme but a myriad of challenges which her characters must face in a city built on transience and extravagence. But the focus remains, and readers can’t avoid the tragic elements of these narratives.
“Walt Was the First
There were others. Nameless.
Faceless. I figured out how to
close off my brain when they did
it to me, to withdraw into a dark
little room inside my head, where
I couldn’t see them. […]”
The verse structure and the rotating narrative afford the author ample opportunity to disclose the personal pain and intimate experiences of her characters. For readers familiar with the subject matter, some aspects of the novel might come across as over-earnest testimony, but for readers approaching the subject freshly in fiction, Tricks is a solid introduction.
Despite their shared content, these authors’ styles are markedly different. Some readers will clearly prefer the matter-of-fact and starkly detailed approach that Ellen Hopkins takes, while others will be immediately drawn to Martine Leavitt’s sure-footed artistry.
I no longer have my copy of Steffie Can’t Come Out to Play, but suspect that it is somewhat less sophisticated than either Tricks or My Book of Life by Angel.
Prostitution on the page: books not just for grown-ups, not just about grown-ups.