The relationship in dysfunctional families between kids and parents isn't something often directly discussed in YA novels, but this one, from the first paragraph, is all about what happens when a kid is accustomed to taking care of a parent. Eventually, the instructions run out... and the caretaker is on their own, no one taking care of them, no one to care for, and no idea how to live.
Summary: Arlie's flushed the drugs, washed the bottoms of her mother's feet and checked that she had on underwear... and, so that's it. Mom's dead, and she's not quite sure what to do next. Eventually, she calls the police, and the world rushes in -- social services, counselors, schedules, high school, and an uncle she never even knew she had. Order is being imposed on the chaos of her world, and though not too much changes at school -- she's still the girl with the horrible burn scar on her face and only one friend -- everything else changes. Arlie's not handling things well.
Living in a retro Airstream with her Uncle Frank, who drops everything and comes to Durango to build them a house, is ...surreal. He looks like he's trying to win father of the year, and for what? He's not her father, and where has he been? Sometimes, Arlie is furious, other times, claustrophobic. Even her best friend, Mo, doesn't understand why she sometimes goes back to the run down motel where she used to live, to see the old lady who lived down the hall, who was almost like family. Even Frank doesn't understand why she goes off by herself sometimes -- and no one will understand why it's so important to her to see her mother's old boyfriend, Lloyd, whose meth cooking is responsible for the horrible scar on her face, and who just might be the one responsible for her mother's death. Arlie has handled everything herself for so long it feels perfectly normal to keep this to herself, and deal.
Peaks: This book had an absorbing, arresting storyline, and despite the emotional distance the reader has from the protagonist, her strong character draws the reader on. Arlie makes choices the reader would not, and puts herself in danger, yet the reader can't help but keep following Arlie down the rabbit hole.
Valleys: There are myriad books out on kids in the system, and it seems an easy trope to make foster families uniformly lazy, out for money, abusive and overall bad. Being in the foster care system is no picnic for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is if you're in a "system" you're in a county monolith of paperwork and rules and that's impersonal at best. But, it can be livable and positive, and I wish more people would at least acknowledge this.
The romance in this story didn't ring quite true for me; for someone who had been so insecure - food insecure, physically insecure, etc., and utterly dependent on a female best friend, the almost immediate acceptance of physical intimacy and the L-word with a boy seemed to happen really quickly, especially since Mo held hands with Arlie and was comfortable hugging and kissing her, and they had been for so long two-against-the-world, it seemed improbable that anyone else would be welcomed as quickly into her charmed circle.
Conclusion: For those teens who enjoy reading the gritty, ripped-from-the-headlines types of novels depicting kids in trouble, this one is going to be catnip. A strong voice, absorbing details and a life utterly unlike the world of most will make this a good window to look through and give readers a sigh of relief at the happier ending.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. You can find BURN GIRL by Mandy Mikulencak at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!