________________ CM . . . . Volume XIV Number 20 . . . . May 30, 2008

cover Snitch.

Allison van Diepen.
New York, NY: SimonPulse (Distributed in Canada by Simon & Schuster Canada), 2007.
297 pp., pbk., $7.99.
ISBN 978-1-4169-5030-1.

Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up.

Review by Joanne Peters.

**** /4


Juia DiVino is on her way to the Dean’s Office (i.e. the Principal’s Office) at South Bay High School. The trip down the hall began innocently enough: she presents a research paper which explored the concept of God as it exists in different cultures. However, her classmates’ remarkably profane response to her statement that “God is not male or female” infuriates her teacher. On her way, Julia makes a short detour:

I surprised myself by heading toward the bathroom on my way to the dean’s office. I guess I needed a few minutes to let the redness in my cheeks go down.

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.

“Hey there, baby.” Diana reached out to receive my bathroom pass but I shook my head.

“I don’t have one.”

“Why not?”

“I’ve been sent to the dean’s office by Ms. Howard but I want a minute to. . .

“Go ahead, sweetie.”

Our bathrooms were like a mini Brooklyn housing project, littered with trash and covered in graffiti. The graffiti was mostly gang stuff: RLB rock da house, Hermanas Mexicalis is bad bitches, Crab girls got crabs. The worst culprits were the school’s biggest girl gang, the RLB, aka Real Live Bitches. I’d spent lots of toilet-sittings deciphering their codes. All you needed to know was a little pig Latin and little Creole and you could crack pretty much any code.


Welcome to South Bay High School. As Julia explains it, “like a million other teenagers, I’m bused to a school that isn’t in my neighbourhood so that I can have better educational opportunities.” At first, it was a tough fit for this Hispanic/Italian kid from Queens, but she’s managed to survive. Still, even though her gang-ridden high school is ranked as the fifth most-dangerous school in the five boroughs outside Manhattan, in comparison with her apartment in Flatbush, “where sirens and gunfire keep me up late at night worrying” about friends and family, the school’s neighbourhood is relatively quiet.

     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.

Highly Recommended.

Joanne Peters is a teacher-librarian at Kelvin High School in Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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