________________ CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 3. . . .September 18, 2009


Girl on the Other Side.

Deborah Kerbel.
Toronto, ON: Dundurn, 2009.
140 pp., pbk., $12.99.
ISBN 978-1-55488-443-8.

Grades 7-10 / Ages 12-15.

Review by Ann Ketcheson.

**** /4

Reviewed from Advance Reader’s Copy.



Tabby They hang on my every word...follow me around like a pack of eager puppies...treat me like some sort of demi-god. Right now they’re watching me eat. I take a bite of my yogurt. Their eyes follow the spoon as it travels to my mouth. Wait and see, tomorrow they’ll all bring low-fat raspberry yogurt for lunch. Just like me.

It’s always been this way. When you belong to the richest family in town, people tend to treat you like you’re something special. Sometimes, I believe it too. But other times I want to yell at them. Call them idiots. Nanny would call them sheep –– that’s probably a better word.

Lora Chelsea stomps her little foot on the linoleum floor and scowls.

“No Lowa! I don’t wanna set the table...I want my skapetti!” she shrieks. I can tell by the crack in her voice what’s coming next and brace myself for the worst. Sure enough, a second later she throws herself onto the floor in a full-blown, kicking, screaming temper tantrum. I want to scream too, but I bite my lip and hold it in. This isn’t exactly the first time she’s done this.

“The best way to handle a toddler’s tantrum is to ignore it.’ I can hear Dad’s voice as clear as day, spouting advice in my ear.

Tabby Freeman is pretty and popular and so rich she enjoys her own en suite bathroom, a seemingly bottomless spending allowance and the prestige of living in the biggest house in town. Yet she has repeated nightmares about falling off a tall building and plummeting to a horrible death. Lora Froggett goes to the same school but seems to already be living her nightmare. “Frog-face” is bullied mercilessly at school and then goes home to care for her three young siblings. She’s essentially on her own since her dad is a firefighter with crazy work shifts and her mom is ill with Multiple Sclerosis. Lora is one of the brightest students in the school, but that doesn’t give her any money, popularity, or help when her little sister throws her spaghetti on the kitchen floor.

     On the surface, these two main characters have nothing in common, but Deborah Kerbel finds similarities. Each girl struggles with the role life has given her, and neither is happy. Secrets and fears come out in a bizarre conversation when one overhears the other crying in the next stall in the girls’ bathroom. Without knowing who is on the other side of the wall, the girls have an honest conversation, exhibiting a reality they never show to the rest of the world. How much easier is it to spill your guts to a friendly voice instead of a known face! Wisely, Kerbel does not have her characters become best friends after this; that would be entirely unbelievable. Rather, the author includes some dramatic events in the plot which throw the girls together in a totally unexpected way. Yet, even at the end of the novel, the two young women go their separate ways and will likely never again be in touch. Kerbel keeps her characters realistic, thrown together by an odd quirk of fate, able to help one another at a particular time and then happy to each go her own way. The novel depends largely on these two main characters and therein lies the strength of the book. Superficially entirely different, the girls face similar struggles. In the end, each has a chance to change her circumstances, but Kerbel doesn’t package everything neatly for her readers and tell us what will happen in the future. We can only hope the girls are able to capitalize on the opportunities offered to them.

     A major theme of the novel is bullying, and Kerbel captures just how mean teenagers can be to one another and the devastating effect this has on the target of the hateful words and actions. The girls face bullying for entirely different reasons, but this mistreatment helps them understand one another on a significant level. Interestingly, a teacher is somewhat aware of what is happening to Lora, but Lora is unable to confide in her and seek help until very late in the novel. Teens find it difficult to get –– or allow –– help in these situations, and thus Kerbel strikes another realistic note.

     Kerbel gives her readers a fast-paced and intriguing plot, many memorable scenes and an insightful look into the emotions of two very real teenage girls. The book doesn’t feel like a contrived mix of romance and typical high school soap opera because Tabby and Lora are independent young women dealing with serious issues that reach beyond the questions of which boy to date or what shoes to wear. Girl on the Other Side is a novel which is entertaining yet thought-provoking at the same time, and it will have great appeal for many female young adult readers.

Highly Recommended.

Ann Ketcheson, a former teacher of high school English and French, lives in Ottawa, ON, where she has turned her love of travel into a new career as a travel consultant.

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

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