Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Touching Snow

By M. Sindy Felin

13 year old Karina is a first generation American, living with her Haitian family in suburban New York.

Her stepfather is physically abusive, but they can't tell anyone because of the family and friends living with them who are illegal immigrants.

When social services do get involved, Karina meets Rachael, a wealthy white girl. They both like girls, and pretty soon, each other. Their growing relationship helps Karina find some of the strength she'll need to save her family.

There's three things to love about this book before you've even read beyond the first sentence:

#1 That first sentence is:

"The best way to avoid being picked on by high school bullies is to kill someone."

#2 It's the author's DEBUT novel. Go Sindy!

#3 It's a finalist for the 2007 National book Award!


Add your review of this book in "comments!"


Worth the Trip said...

This is a terrific book. Here's the review for it I originally posted on Worth the Trip.

Without question, this is one of the most stunningly beautiful novels I’ve read in a long time. The narrator is 13-year-old Karina, a first generation Haitian girl living in Chestnut Valley, right outside of New York City. She’s in the middle of three sisters. The eldest, Enid, is a surrogate mother for the younger children, and the youngest, Delta, is an academically gifted girl who hopes to attend Harvard one day. Karina herself is a tough kid with a razor-sharp wit who opens her story with these words: “The best way to avoid being picked on by high school bullies is to kill someone.” How could anyone possibly stop reading after that opening line?

Also in Karina’s household are two young half-brothers, four-year-old Gerald, who wears braces on his legs, and the baby, Roland; two nine-year twin cousins, Jack and Joseph; her mother and her aunt, and Augustin, a family friend who rents space in the basement. And looming large over everything and everyone in the household is their brutal stepfather, whom Karina simply calls “the Daddy.”

The Daddy regularly dishes out “beat-ups” on his teenage stepdaughters for small everyday transgressions such as spilling milk or falling asleep with the light on. When he comes home from work one night and discovers that the girls have thrown left-over food away, he flies into a rage and beats the eldest daughter so badly that he nearly kills her. An anonymous tip brings the police to their home and the Daddy is arrested and put in jail.

Karina’s mother tells her she must lie and tell the authorities that she was the one who beat her sister. They don’t want to lose the income from the Daddy’s job, and they don’t want to police to learn about their aunt, cousins and the friend in the basement who are all in the U.S. illegally. Difficult as it is for her, Karina agrees to it for the sake of the family. But she and her sisters make a promise to each other that they’ll always try to protect each other, as if they were guardian angels.

Even with the lie, once social services gets involved in Karina’s life, things start to change for her. She’s forced to start volunteer work at a local community center and there she meets Rachael, a rich white girl who’s also volunteering against her will. In spite of the differences in their backgrounds, the two girls find that they have quite a bit in common, not the least of which is an attraction to other girls, rather than boys. And, before too long, that becomes an attraction to each other.

Neither one of them agonizes over their sexuality, or what same-sex attraction means — they’re just happy to have found each other. Karina’s very matter-of-fact descriptions of her physical response to Rachael are consistent with her tone throughout, where she describes the Daddy’s beatings in the same cool voice she uses to describe her Halloween costume. When Rachael traces a scar on Karina’s abdomen, for example, she says “I thought I had been electrocuted in the crotch.”

The story takes place in the mid-1980s, and details from that era add to the texture of the novel by showing how queer kids a generation ago found themselves reflected in mainstream culture. Karina complains about Rachael wearing too much makeup and tells her that her eye shadow makes her look like Boy George.

“I do not look like Boy George” she said as she pulled out a tissue and began blotting her makeup.

“Boy George isn’t so bad looking,” I said.

“Boy George is a freak,” said Rachael.

“Right, a not-so-bad-looking freak,” I said. “Kind of like you.”

Both girls are intrigued by the first Black Miss America, Vanessa Williams, and her fall from grace, notably due to her lesbian-themed photo spread in Playboy.

Karina’s growing relationship with Rachael gives her the sort of intimacy and friendship she has been craving, and also provides her with the strength and determination she needs to ensure her own survival, and that of her siblings. She will indeed become the sort of guardian angel she has promised to be for her sisters, and the way in which she does it will knock your socks off.

The writing is somewhat reminiscent of that of Dorothy Allison, but there is also a great deal of originality in the style and the voice. This deep, haunting novel is likely to stay with readers long after they finish it. -- KT Horning

Rita said...

This book was wonderful, powerful, and astonishingly, impressively executed. The first-person character takes a no-holds-barred approach to narrating every facet of her own life: the reality of "the Daddy"'s "beat-ups" (better, if you know it's coming, to get it over with than to run, because you'll never get out of it) to the financial and legal reasons they don't alert authorities or get rid of him, to the uselessness of other community figures in their lives who mean well but just can't see the truth. There is also the contrast between these "useless" do-gooders and other, more perceptive authorities--like the social worker and the judge--who could actually have the power to help, but whom Karina is made to lie to. (They don't even believe her lie, but, in the end, because of it, there is nothing they can do.)

What is really striking, in addition, is that both Karina's Haitian background (with the illegal immigration issues surrounding some of her family) and the fact she likes girls are handled in this exact same, blunt way. These conditions of her life are never central issues to the plot, but they are always prominent and relevant because they are part of who she is; part of the specifics that make this life.

The story felt universal to all abused teens exactly because of that. An amazing, important accomplishment.