Every year, I read a few books that equate to an emotional punch in the face. This year, My Book of Life by Angel is one of them, as it deals with the massively-uplifting trifecta of teenage runaways, teen prostitution, and drug addiction.
After Angel's mother dies, she spends less and less time at home with her father and her little brother, and more and more time at the mall. She starts shoplifting—she has an especially hard time saying 'no' to the sample shoes—and on more than one occasion, her father has to pick her up at the police station.
Then she meets Call. At first, he's just a nice guy to talk to, a guy who buys her meals and buys her presents. And then he starts giving her candy (<--but, you know, it's not actually candy):
At first is was so fun, Call's candy,
and all the missing of Mom went away
and I was all
I'm so baby uptown
I'm so baby bless my soul
I'm so baby high heels
I'm so baby rock and roll.
But then her father catches her with drugs at home, and gives her an ultimatum: clean up or move out. So she moves in with Call. Who promptly stops giving her the drugs that she now craves constantly... and makes her work for them:
As soon as I knew what Call had made me,
the first time a man said in a word what I was
and I couldn't even say that's not true—
as soon as that happened
I knew I could not bring that word home
even if I wanted to—
Jeremy and I weren't even allowed to say stupid
my dad would never allow a word like me.
Then (yes, her situation gets worse), her friend Serena disappears one night. And Angel starts hearing rumors about a man in a white van who picks girls up and doesn't drop them off. And then Call brings home a new girl, a girl he calls Angel's 'retirement plan'.
She's eleven years old.
And so Angel has to make a choice.
Like Elizabeth Scott's Living Dead Girl, it's about a girl who considers herself a lost cause, but who still has the strength to try to save someone else. Like Living Dead Girl, it also has an ending that will be endlessly debatable, but My Book of Life by Angel has a much stronger undercurrent of hope. That said, it was gutting.
The Author's Note—in which Leavitt explains how Angel's story, while fictional, is unfortunately similar to the lives of many young girls—makes it even more so. In that section, she also gives a brief history of the Pickton murders, which don't have a central role in the book, but serve as more of a backdrop: from 1983-2002, well over 50 women disappeared from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. As the majority of them were sex workers, local law enforcement didn't pursue the cases, even when a man—who would later admit to 49 murders—was accused of handcuffing and knifing a sex worker in 1997. The reason no one followed up? Because a sex worker wasn't "considered a reliable witness".
Unlike a lot of verse novels, it reads like poetry: lots of rhythm, lots of passages that convey multiple meanings, even some wordplay. As the title suggests, Angel is writing her own story, and voice is believable, raw, determined, and surprisingly enough* considering her circumstances, displays a decent amount of humor. I don't want to say that there are moments of loveliness in the story—because, for me, there weren't—but the writing itself is lovely.
There's a Paradise Lost thread that runs through the book: a line or two from it precedes each milestone in Angel's story, one of Angel's regular johns is a college professor who has her read aloud from Milton's Paradise Lost (specifically Book Nine), and the more times she reads it, the more she understands it... and the more she understands it, the more she wants to read the whole thing.
It's not going to be for everyone—honestly, I doubt I'd have picked it up if it hadn't been a Cybils nominee—but it's a good one.
*Then again, maybe that's what has allowed her to survive this long.
Book source: ILLed through my library. This book was read for the 2012 Cybils season.