________________ CM . . . . Volume XXII Number 16. . . .December 18, 2015


Spirit Level.

Sarah N. Harvey.
Victoria, BC: Orca, 2016.
233 pp., trade pbk., pdf & epub, $14.95 (pbk.).
ISBN 978-1-4598-0816-4 (pbk), ISBN 978-1-4598-0817-1 (pdf), ISBN 978-1-4598-0818-8 (epub).

Grades 11 and up / Ages 16 and up.

Review by Penta Ledger.

*** /4

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.



When I get out of the shower, my head feels clearer than it has since Byron left. I’m excited about something for the first time in weeks. Maybe excited is stretching it; maybe curious is more accurate.

I suddenly feel shy – or more like wary – about telling Mom my plan, although that makes no sense at all. She told me years ago that she was a Single Mother by Choice (yes, it’s a thing) and that I was donor conceived. I’ve known about the Donor Sibling Registry, a service that connects people with their half-siblings and/or donors, since before I could read. She’s encouraged me to check it out and accepted that I’ve never wanted to. And now that I’m going to, I don’t want her to know. I want this to be my thing, not hers. And it’s not like she has any connection to my half-siblings anyway. She is not the common denominator – my donor is. (We never call him “dad,” because he’s not. Mom says “dad” is a social construct anyway, whatever that means.) All I know is that he was a tall, part-Latino medical student, which I guess accounts for my height, my dark wavy hair and my brown eyes. Mom knows a bit about his medical history, but I’ve never asked her about it. She always refers to him as Dr. GM (short for Genetic Material). When I failed Biology in tenth grade, she said, ‘Damn. I thought Dr. GM might have passed on some of those science genes.’ Then she hired me a tutor.


Harriet (Harry) always knew that she was a donor-conceived child. Her sociologist mother, Della, has always been upfront with Harry, even telling her about the Donor Sibling Registry (DSR) if she ever wanted to look for her “half-sibs”. Now in her late teens and trying to overcome the loss of her long-time boyfriend Byron, Harry decides to enter the registry. To her surprise, she meets Lucy and Meredith, her two half sisters.

      Each of the sisters has a very different life. Harry lives with her mother, Lucy lives with her two mothers and Meredith rents an apartment with her friend Alex with whom she ran away from home. As a relationship builds between the ‘sisters’, they eventually all decide to try and find their donor. Over the weeks of their searching, Harriet and Alex get closer. He’s the first boy Harry’s been attracted to since Byron moved away. Meredith is livid about their close relationship, which adds to Harry’s scepticism about Meredith’s life story. So, she decides to do some research about Meredith as well. It doesn’t take long for Harry to uncover the fact that Meredith’s stories are all lies except that Alex and she have been friends since childhood. A newspaper clipping shows a picture of Meredith and Alex on a t-ball team, but the name under Alex’s picture is “Danielle”. Harriet first confronts Alex who admits that he’s trans-gender but still wants to pursue a relationship with Harry. Though both realize that the road ahead will not be easy, they agree to give it a try.

      The sisters are able to contact the donor, Daniel, through email and find out that he is now a retired doctor who currently lives in Seattle but is in Mexico to build a free medical clinic and that he plans to eventually move there. He looks forward to having the girls visit once he gets settled.

      To celebrate their success at finding Daniel, the ‘sisters’ and their families go on a picnic. Even before the picnic gets started, Alex and Meredith are in a heated conversation, one which Harry soon finds out is over her and her relationship with Alex. Meredith’s mental instability is increased when she is faced with the possibility of ‘losing’ her one friend, Alex. Meredith attacks Harry, punching her in the face, until she finally has to be pulled off by Harry’s mom.

      Over the next week, and with reports from Alex, the families agree that Meredith needs to be admitted to a hospital for her mental health. They call Meredith’s parents who immediately fly to Seattle to help with the recovery. Just before her release, and without her parents knowing, Meredith decides to secretly go to Mexico to meet Daniel, and she asks Alex to go with her. Alex breaks the news to Harriet, trying to explain that he has to go to keep Meredith safe.

      Alex and Harry part as friends, and Harry gets reports from Alex that Meredith is now working at the clinic and doing well. Harriet still has a close relationship with Lucy but returns to school after a whirlwind summer, not knowing if she will ever see Alex again.

      There are major social issues presented in Sarah Harvey’s Spirit Level including the definitions of family, trans-gender identity, donor ‘fathers’ and half-siblings. It also considers homelessness, mental health, addiction and family dynamics, which are all woven into the life story of a late teenaged girl called ‘Harry’. The voice of the protagonist is believable, but, in some instances, Harry seems to be younger than she is since she struggles with some of the concepts her mother explains by replying, “Whatever that’s supposed to mean,” even though Harry works closely with her mother helping with her sociological research. Despite some similar small glitches, Harry, and all of the other characters in this story, knit together the social issues and drama of the novel.

      Kindness in this novel seems to emanate from the single character, Verna. Verna, a hairstylist business owner who took Della in when she was pregnant with Harriet, fixes up a small apartment above the shop for Annabeth who is a homeless woman trying to change her life. Also, Verna provides free washes for the “Sunday Group”, a group of women who are either homeless or prostitutes and don’t have access to proper facilities. Further, she crochets blankets and gives them out to anyone in need. In this novel, Verna comes through as the archetypal grandma, which in some ways helps to balance the negative lives experienced by many of the characters in the story.

      The relatively quick pace of Spirit Level, paired with the complex social issues presented, would make this an appropriate YA read. There is a lot going on in this book, however, and, at times, the storyline seems forced, including Meredith’s ‘happy’ move to Mexico and Harry and Della’s light treatment of the fact that Alex is trans-gender. It would be interesting to have the many storyline threads of this novel separated and dealt with more deeply in a multi-book series. That being said, I do think this novel would be enjoyed by high school aged female readers.


Penta Ledger is a teacher-librarian at Gravenhurst High School in Gravenhurst, ON.

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

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