Book: Messed Up
Author: Janet Nichols Lynch
Source: Local Library
R.D. is already a statistic. With his mom in prison, his father deported, and his grandma AWOL, he's being raised by his grandma's ex-boyfriend, Earl, and they scrape by on Social Security and under-the-table auto repair. He's repeating the eighth grade and drifting around the edges of a gang lifestyle. Anybody can see where this is going.
Then the unthinkable happens. Earl dies.
With the specter of the foster care system looming before him, R.D. quickly realizes that his best option is to not let anybody know that he's on his own. But he's just a kid. How is he going to manage that, and keep himself together?
While reading, I kept thinking, "This author must be a teacher." The portrayal of kids adrift, floundering, sliding toward a fate as just another number in a police report or welfare rolls, is too clear and pitiless not to result from direct observation of similar situations. Ditto for the message that the only salvation is understanding the consequences of your actions and that you are the only person who can control your fate. When I checked out Lynch's website, I was proven right; she's taught both middle and high school. I feel like the premise could come off a little preachy ("you gotta grow up sometime, kid") and the fact that R.D. succeeded in his ruse as long as he did was somewhat unlikely, but the characters saved it.
R.D. starts the book as the least self-aware teenage boy on the planet. Full of helpless rage, but unable to understand where it comes from or what to do with it, he's a gang color and a gun away from juvie. Then responsibility hits, and hits hard. It's amazing to see R.D. mature over the course of the book. In spite of having had a very tough life, up to now he's never had to actually think about how to take care of himself, and how his choices affect not only him but the people he cares about.
He's hardly unique. Surrounded by other kids in similar straits, the only difference is that he's lucky enough to be able to take control. One of the saddest secondary characters was Desiree, a classmate who fastens onto R.D. when he breaks up a fight between her and another girl. She proclaims herself his girlfriend, vows her devotion, and when he makes it clear that he can't handle her crap, leaps to another boy and then uses him to revenge herself on R.D. She's a sad character because you can clearly see the grasping need for an identity, for meaning, that underlies her extreme clinginess and wild emotional swings. At one point, she incites her new boyfriend and his friends to jump R.D. and beat him up, and stands on the sidelines chirping, "They're fighting over me!" Even R.D., being beaten to a pulp, knows better.
While his road to maturity is full of bumps and bruises, R.D. is one of the lucky ones, and by the end, both you and he know it.