CM . . .
. Volume XXI Number 27. . . .March 20, 2015
Sarah and Jennifer Davies’ mother died when Jen was nine and Sarah was six. Shortly thereafter, their father, who had begun drinking while their mom was alive, lost his job, then their home, then himself as he sank further and further into abject alcoholism.
Now, Sarah is nine; Jen is twelve. Their father doesn’t work at all. He drinks and travels from place to place in a derelict car with a buddy named Joe. Joe sometimes works, but he also drinks. In various towns and cities, they stay with someone either of the men knows. None of those friends or acquaintances are people you’d want your children to be around.
Unable to live on their own, Sarah and Jen have had no choice but to go with their dad and be dragged from province to province. They’ve had no choice but to stay with the men he stays with. Once in a while, in the past, Dad or Joe have had a girlfriend. If Sarah and Jen were lucky, she’d feel sorry for two neglected girls. That, however, was rare and is not the case now.
Dad doesn’t think about them. He doesn’t feed them, or clothe them, or even notice them. Joe sometimes remembers the girls need food and clothes, but not nearly often enough. The girls have had to learn to fend for themselves.
Alison Lohan’s No Place For Kids delves into the gut wrenching realities of what happens to kids when one parent is lost and the other sinks into his own grief so totally he forgets his children are alive. It’s a difficult subject, and, as Jennifer often tells Sarah, you’ve got to be tough to handle it.
Told from Sarah’s point of view, the opening chapters are visceral. The girls are starving, literally. They have not eaten all day and cannot find any food in the house they’re currently in, which is typical of the places they stay.
Another of the realities of a truly dysfunctional family is that hardship does not bring its members closer together. Rather, it turns life into a free for all where it’s every one for herself. In Sarah and Jen’s case, it’s made the differences in their personalities clash as each struggles to find ways to cope in her own style. Jennifer has learned to steal. And she carries a knife. She’s believes being tough is the only way to survive. Sarah has a different take on things.
To her, Jen isn’t just tough. She’s mean. She belittles Sarah and hits her. And nothing is fair. Sarah can’t remember the last time she had a regular meal. Her shoes are so small they blister her toes, and they have holes that let in things like sharp rocks. While Jen has a gold chain she wears that used to belong to their mother, Sarah has only a grungy stuffed lion. She remembers when she had “a house, just like everybody else, clothes that fit, lots of markers for colouring, and a game with a charger that didn’t need batteries. She had piano lessons and jazz dance lessons—and she never had to wonder if there’d be food to eat.” Jen had the same things, Sarah says, except she played hockey instead of dancing.
Besides starving for food, Sarah is hungry for affection, and someone who cares. She wants Jen to call their mother’s sister. Besides Mom, Aunt Ellen is Sarah’s favourite person. But they haven’t seen her since the Christmas before last. The girls know she’s in Vancouver, but they don’t know her address, and she has an unlisted telephone number. And even if she could find the number, Jen says, by the time Aunt Ellen got to wherever they are, they’d be gone to a different place.
Jen might think she can take care of herself, but Sarah can’t. She’s so hungry that when the friend their father is currently staying with offers her a chocolate bar if she’ll go with him into his room and sit on his lap, she does. Savvy about such men’s intentions, Jen steps in. She pulls her knife and tells Wes to keep his filthy hands off her sister. Their father also arrives on the scene and threatens Wes. But his threat is weak, and he immediately goes back to the couch and his booze. That’s the tipping point that makes Jen decide it’s time to get out. As far as she’s concerned, Aunt Ellen is their only possible refuge.
The girls worked shovelling snow in the winter, and Jen saved the money they made. But they’re in Winnipeg. Vancouver is a long way away. There isn’t enough money to get them there.
No Place For Kids is a fast paced, gripping read. Lohans doesn’t skirt around the realities of what happens to the inner self of an oldest daughter who was just nine when her father began to really go off the rails and she was left to care for a sister who was then only six, and to fend off unwanted attentions from his nasty friends. Burdened with responsibility well beyond her years and filled with her own pain, Jennifer Davies has become bitter and resentful. Sarah remembers better times, but has been starved and mistreated for so long she should be beaten down. However, she isn’t.
That, for me, is where the story is least realistic. There are people who surmount incredible odds and come out stronger. That said, a little girl who has been totally neglected by the person who should be taking care of her, starved, and mistreated since she was six would need at least one strong role model of the good kind to know it was possible to react to her plight in some other way than her older sister does, and to think for herself. On their journey west, Sarah does encounter a couple of people who treat her well and revive her spirit, but one wonders how quick a transformation from frightened little girl to strong kid would occur.
Other events that seem unrealistic pop out from time to time.
Minor: near the end of the book Sarah writes a note. Since she has not been in school since age six (grade one) one questions where she learned to do this, and how she got the addresses she adds. Jennifer gets sick and runs a raging fever. But with absolutely nothing to eat and little water, she recovers within two days.
More important: the girls are filthy, smelly, and after a year and a half of infrequent meals, must be rake thin. Yet no adult they ask directly gives them money, or food, or asks them anything about themselves. Except for one old woman—who is obviously struggling with her own problems—the adults they encounter simply pretend the children aren’t there.
Sarah, who hasn’t had anything to eat or drink for an entire day, comes into contact with a table laden with food in a school packed with adults and kids involved in Brownies and Guides. Yet she doesn’t think about slipping even one cookie into her jeans pocket. And no one in the school seems to notice the two scrawny and soiled girls.
Maybe in Canada, there are children like Sarah and Jen who pass unnoticed among us. I’d like to think not. But what I see as flaws in logic might be the real strength of Alison Lohans’ book. There are bad things happening and people who are suffering among us that we simply choose not to see. In the end, it takes an eight year old to notice. And perhaps, that’s the way it is, too.
What young readers will connect with is the girls’ plight. They may find Sarah the more appealing of the two girls, or they may be more intrigued by Jen. Those who live a comfortable life won’t be able to help comparing their secure and safe homes with the insecure and unsafe places in which Sarah and Jen find themselves. But if any young person who reads this book happens to be in an unsafe place, I hope they’ll take particular note of chapters 12 and 13.
Jocelyn Reekie is a writer, editor and publisher in Campbell River, BC.
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other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.