CM . . .
. Volume XXIII Number 4. . . .September 30, 2016
Kammie, 11, moves from a middle-class suburban existence in New Jersey to a dusty, forlorn Texas prison town with her mother and brother to be near their father who was convicted in a high profile embezzling case. Lonely and desperate, she attempts to befriend a popular trio of girls named Mandy, Kandy, and Sandy, who subject her to cruel initiation rites. One of them involves her walking across the mouth of a dried-up well on a rotting board. The board breaks, leaving her wedged deep in the well, her arms pinned to her sides. In the hours that Kammie is trapped, gasping for air while the girls seek help and the emergency responders figure out what to do, she thinks about her tragic life so far, often blacking out, dreaming and hallucinating, and finally coming to terms with her own peculiarity and her less-than-perfect life. The well is finally dug out, and she is rescued.
The Girl in the Well is Me is not a book for every middle grader, nor is it for the faint of heart. What it is, is a strange, wonderful, stream-of-consciousness screed, one with little regard for plot, resolution, explanation, or denouement. Kammie’s every thought is utterly compelling, her self-pity wrenching, her imagination fascinating, her near-psychosis entirely believable. Readers will be frustrated by the lack of justice delivered to the pathologically cruel Mandy, Kandy, and Sandy (who wait until after they eat dinner to report Kammie’s situation to adults!) but will find the book impossible to put down until the satisfying end. When Kammie realizes, as in the quote above, that living means accepting your circumstances and letting “your freak flag fly”, she finds herself delivered from the trap of self-pity as much as from the well.
What Rivers has done, seemingly impossible, is to take an existential, almost tortuous internal dialogue, of the type of some of the world’s best literature (think: Sartre) and make it entirely relevant, even accessible, to young readers. She’s even introduced surrealism, albeit mainly due to Kammie’s oxygen-deprivation and her attending bizarre thoughts and hallucinations (imagining a French-speaking goat is in the well with her, for example). Her father’s crime is almost bizarre, too—he embezzled funds from a last-wish foundation for terminally ill children, an action leading Kammie to agonize over her guilt and disgust.
Told in a flowing, unfiltered, run-on-sentence style directly from Kammie’s brain, The Girl in the Well is Me is a scream of defiance just barely winning over despair. Utterly brilliant.
Todd Kyle is the CEO of the Newmarket Public Library in Ontario and President of the Ontario Library Association.
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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.
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.